Wednesday, October 31, 2012

$500,000 in sketchy money greasing a Montana election (no, it's actually Democratic money, and it's in the Senate Race)

I commented several months ago about the silliness that is involved in every Montana campaign season regarding campaign finance regulations and other picky campaign rules. Are other states as filled with the same kind of tedious sniping about who gave what and whose lettering on which signs are the proper size? For the sake of the Republic, I hope not.

This season, there was a major blow for sanity when a judge struck down Montana's laws limiting the contributions that campaigns could receive in this state. I understand that there are a lot of people who think that the problem with campaigns today is that there is too much money and that the answer to this "problem" is to restrict the size of donations and make picky regulations that require full-time professionals to keep up with them. To which I respond: over a four year period Montana's GDP is roughly $150 billion -- is it really unreasonable to spend three or four million dollars over that same period on a campaign that decides who the governor will be? I don't think so. Montanans probably spend more than that in a single month paying their cable TV bills. Is a month's worth of reality TV really just as important as who heads up our state's executive branch? To ask the question is to answer it.

In another post back in July, I had this to say:

Outside organizations have always been able to pour money into races, and this election cycle is no exception...

Furthermore, since outside groups can’t coordinate with the candidate, the candidate has no ability to control the message -- increasingly, the truly greasy things are done by outside groups so the candidate can shrug his shoulders and say “I had nothing to do with it -- in fact, I’m not even allowed to talk to them.” There is always mud slung in campaigns, but when big money is forced into outside groups, the candidates don’t have to take responsibility for any of it.

And indeed, there has been a great illustration of this recently. Rick Hill's gubernatorial campaign accepted a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party during the period of time when a judge had ruled that it was legal to do so. Another judge has subsequently (and inexplicably) prohibited Hill from spending that legal money.

Consider, however:

First, that donation leveled the playing field between Hill and Bullock when it came to money. Hill and Bullock have matched each other practically dollar for dollar when it comes to raising money here in Montana in the ridiculously low amounts required by state law. Bullock has, however, outstripped Hill when it comes to raising out-of-state money. Don't think that this is because Democrats all over the country just happen to know about Bullock and are itching to write him $630 checks right and left. Such things are organized and bundled by professional fundraisers, and the money tends to come from wealthy donors who write similar checks to Democratic candidates all over the country. Big money, in other words.

The $500,000 that Hill received came from similar sources on the Republican side, just in a different way.

Second, note that the money came from Republican Party organizations -- the Montanan Republican Party and ultimately the Republican Governor's Association. Contributions to political party organizations, I would point out, are reportable and the information is available to the public, if you care about such things. I really don't, but Democrats make a big noisy deal about how important it is, so I mention it.

I happen to be old-fashioned on the subject of political parties. As a Burkean, I think political parties play a moderating and mediating role because they have an interest in promoting consensus candidates and issues that can win elections at every level in a state -- and not just in one election cycle, but in the next, and the next... When parties can control the purse strings to a certain extent, more extreme candidates are unlikely to get as much support. As the financial power of political parties has been increasingly hamstrung by election laws, our elections have only gotten uglier and more negative.

Third (and here I reach the main point of this post), note that an identical amount -- $500,000 -- is being spent by a Jon Tester-friendly group on a sleazy campaign tactic: running ads urging voters to choose the guy they style as the "real conservative" in the U.S. Senate race in Montana -- the Libertarian Party candidate. Since every "real conservative" who is persuaded to vote Libertarian is a voter who has been peeled away from Denny Rehberg, the motivation is clear, and the tactic is cynical, to say the least.

Leaving aside the question of whether fringe libertarian candidates in Montana are actually more conservative than mainstream Republicans in Montana (in my experience they are not) "the ad is funded by the Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund, a political-action committee financed earlier this year by the League of Conservation Voters, a leading conservation and environmental group backing Tester."

Keep in mind that the Libertarian Party advocates the private ownership of wildlife, the privatization of all public lands, National Parks, etc. Add to that the fact that no-one (especially the Montana press) seems to have really done much "fact-checking" on who this Libertarian guy really is. Is he the kind of person that the folks running these ads would choose to manage Montana's wildlife and public land? Does the "Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund" seriously want public land to be privatized and wildlife to be privately owned? Please. This tactic is completely legal (although we wonder where all of that money is ultimately coming from, given Democratic preaching about "transparency" -- have they released a full list of donors and amounts?)

It is legal, but it is also completely cynical in its approach to our electoral system -- and I would predict that not a few Montanans will view it with disgust.

For the richest irony of all, Sen. Tester doesn't have to take responsibility for this slimy tactic. Not one bit. After all, he's not spending the money, and isn't allowed to coordinate with the group. (Wink, nudge.)

By contrast, the $500,000 that Rick Hill's campaign received from the Montana GOP is money that would be spent on ads ending with the words "I'm Rick Hill, and I approved this message." Would the Tester campaign take out a message urging people to vote for the Libertarian candidate and have Sen. Tester finish it off with "I'm Jon Tester, and I approved this message?" I don't think so.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm sick and tired of ads from groups of unknown origin that tell us to "Call So-and-So and tell him that he's a blithering idiot" -- since the structure of such organizations are built around issue advocacy that make attack ads the way to go. Most candidates would much rather have donations given directly to them to spend as they see fit rather than having "helpful" groups flooding the airwaves, and most big donors would probably rather give their money to a candidate they support rather than to a Super-PAC.

Again, it's all legal, and it should be. People should be able to spend their money however they want, exercising their rights of free speech. But why can't that money go directly to candidates if the donors want it to? Let them spend it, let them take responsibility for the content. That money is going to be spent one way or another in these races -- let's maximize the chances that it will be spent in a way in which candidates will be answering directly for distortions and lies in their own ads.

Rick Hill and the Republican Party are wanting to spend money and take responsibility for the content -- and a hostile judge shut them down. Meanwhile, Jon Tester and the Democrats -- or, excuse me, "independent groups" -- are spending an identical sum on a tactic that subverts a clear and straight-up choice facing Montanans in our U.S. Senate race. I suspect justice will ultimately be served, but it will be thanks to Montana voters siding with Denny Rehberg, and no thanks to certain Montana judges or our state's campaign regulation bureaucracy.


Ed Kemmick said...

Hmmm. First you say:

"Furthermore, since outside groups can’t coordinate with the candidate, the candidate has no ability to control the message..."

There, you seem to accept that rules are followed. Then, later, you say:

"For the richest irony of all, Sen. Tester doesn't have to take responsibility for this slimy tactic. Not one bit. After all, he's not spending the money, and isn't allowed to coordinate with the group. (Wink, nudge.)"

So, when it's Tester, it's just a given that there's collusion? To me, the richest irony of all is that you didn't even mention American Tradition Partnership, and the existence of a trove of documents that present compelling evidence of actual collusion between a very large, very dirty group of moneybags and named GOP candidates.

What gives?

Brad Anderson said...

The purpose of my post was not to contrast a Democratic outside group with a Republican outside group.

It was to note that a judge squashed $500,000 in completely open, accountable, and traceable money (for those who deem such things important) and that would be spent by a candidate who takes responsibility for the content.

By contrast, it is perfectly legal for $500,000 to be spent by an outside group to engage in what I think we would agree is a dishonest campaign tactic: campaigning for a candidate whose positions are even more repugnant to you than are those of the guy you are trying to defeat. It is perfectly legal, but intellectually dishonest.

If I were to have mentioned the ATP, it would only have reinforced my basic point, which is that there shouldn't be limits on what people can give to candidates, for any office. It would only provide further evidence that such limits push that money into the shadows where candidates don't have to take responsibility for the messaging (and couldn't even if they wanted to.)

Nearly all of these groups -- Democratic and Republican -- absolutely intend to coordinate with the campaigns they are supporting. Some just do it and try to keep it secret. Most do it through indirect means that avoid an overt smoking gun. I fail, really, to see an ethical difference between the two.

What we have is a system that rewards those who are more skilled at subterfuge, half-truths, and cat-and-mouse games. Why would we want such a thing? The only thing that would be worse would be one where free speech was simply restricted altogether.

Ed Kemmick said...

Regardless of what your purpose was, Tester was the only politician you directly impugned, on a speculative basis, while the ATP documents showed direct collusion with politicians you could have named with more justice.

And I do deem it to be of great importance to know who's spending the money on political "speech." Anonymity may not have been so bad when "Publius" and a few others were distributing handbills, but when voters are up to their necks in a flood of attack ads that deal in lies and rumors and fear-mongering, knowing the identity of the attacker is virtually the only thing worth knowing.

Just because politicians from both parties have failed to devise an honest, workable system doesn't mean such a thing is impossible. Your alternative -- wide-open, no-holds-barred politicking based on unlimited spending -- promises even uglier campaigns, if that is imaginable.

Worse yet, I don't think the outside groups would stop their own spending. They could still pour millions into the parties' coffers, then spend additional millions producing the kind of ads the parties, as you say, would be too squeamish to run.

By the way, I can hardly think of a law that doesn't reward subterfuge and cunning. That shouldn't invalidate laws.

Brad Anderson said...

You are right. I probably should have added a "granted, both sides do it" to my "wink, nudge." From my admittedly partisan standpoint, it seems to me that the criticism I see in the press about secret money and financial shenanigans seems to be disproportionately directed at Republicans, even though I don't think Republicans are any more guilty of such things than Democrats are, so I guess I didn't see a need to repeat criticisms of my party that already get a pretty thorough airing.

Unless I have missed something, a detailed listing of donors and amounts given to the "Montana Hunters and Anglers" is just as unavailable as is that of the ATP. I would think it would make for a great story to learn exactly just which big Democratic donors are giving money to try to get people to vote for someone whose party wants to privatize wildlife and National Parks.

I also get the feeling that this discussion is conflating what to me are two separate issues: anonymity of contributions and limiting the size of contributions. Laws could be changed to allow unlimited contributions without changing the requirements for making donor information public. (The converse is not true -- you couldn't have anonymity while restricting the size of contributions.)

The main thing I was pointing out in this post was the irony of a situation where completely open and traceable money was shut down, while the same system allows secret money to flourish as long as it is outside of the technical control of candidates and parties.

I do believe that a lot of the outside money would dry up and that outside money would become largely synonymous with sleazy attacks if candidates and political parties could receive unlimited donations. Under current laws, donor information would have to be available to the public.

Even there, our current rules don't make sense. Why should the person who gives $50 to President Obama get to be anonymous, while the person who gives $1000 to Romney has to have his name on the internet? (Or vice versa?) Does anyone seriously believe that giving $1000 dollars to a billion dollar campaign is going to earn you any more favors with the President than is donating $50? On the other hand, the union guy who gives money to Romney or the Mormon elder who donates to Obama might have very good reasons why they would prefer to be anonymous, regardless of the amount. What public good is accomplished by denying them that anonymity -- and what dollar figure, really, constitutes an amount where the public really, really, needs to know about that contribution? Our current figures strike me as being completely arbitrary, and not at all based in reality regarding how much money someone would have to give in order to get special treatment from a public official.

You may very well be right that my ideas would lead to an even worse situation. I just don't see much sense to how things are being done now.