In the Arena

Money and Politics

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I pretty much agree with David Brooks’ column today about the overstated importance of money in political campaigns–with two exceptions. Yes, the number of ads become wallpaper after a while; and yes, the reason for the Democrats’ troubles this year has more to do with the economy and the perceived deficiencies of the Congressional leadership (and, to a lesser extent, the President) than with the secret campaign funds that the Republicans are accumulating.

But there is also a cynical, strategic–and occasionally lethal–aspect of the massive ad buys that Brooks doesn’t mention: the more disgusted with politicians that people become, the less likely they are to vote. Elections then become more manageable for the pros: our base can beat your base. This is a strategy pioneered by Pat Caddell 30 years ago–as so much of modern ¬†campaign consulting was–when he sought to depress turnout in a U.S. Senate race involving his unloved client Alan Cranston. It worked then, and has worked in more than a few races since. With Republicans mobilized this year, it’s probably working for the GOP in selected races across the country, perhaps even the Colorado race that Brooks mentions.

The other quibble is this: saying that political ads aren’t very effective anyway provides no excuse for the loathsome secret funds being raised by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove. It’s not the funds I object to so much as the secrecy: we have a right to know where Karl’s getting the money to peddle his swill–a principle that should be supported by all the wingnuts who celebrated the exposure of George Soros as the prime funding source for J Street, the pro-Israel, but anti-Likud, lobbying group.

In that regard, David Axelrod was absolutely correct to raise the issue of secret foreign campaign funders on Face the Nation a few weeks ago. Rove and the Chamber have the burden of proof here. Excellent journalist that he is, Bob Schieffer should be clamoring for the release of the secret donors. The only way to prove Obama and Axelrod wrong is to make the list public. Not holding my breath on that one, though.