On Election Day, Money and Magical Thinking

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Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to former President George W. Bush, right, talks to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Forty years ago, as a young, aspiring political operative, I was a staff member on Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign. We thought we could beat Richard Nixon, but famously lost every state in the union except Massachusetts (with the District of Columbia thrown in as a forlorn consolation prize).

To commit to the presidential campaign lifestyle — endless hours and damn little charm — you really have to believe, no matter what, that your candidate will win. So last week I wasn’t surprised by the many stories about how the Romney team was convinced they would emerge victorious, polling evidence to the contrary, to the point where they reportedly had a fireworks display poised for ignition above Boston Harbor when the requisite electoral votes were achieved.

But what I don’t understand is building a castle in the air and, even in defeat, trying to keep paying rent on it, almost all evidence to the contrary. For years, the right wing has been living in its own version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings: an alternative and fanciful, fierce universe rarely bearing resemblance to real life but for odd, embittered moments like the one at President Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago on Election Night, when Fox News’ Ed Henry dourly announced, “The crowd is near pandemonium now, despite the fact that unemployment is hovering near eight percent.”

Talk about a party pooper. This all has been going on since at least 2004, when an unnamed aide to George W. Bush — widely thought to be Karl Rove — told journalist Ron Suskind, “We create our own reality… We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Last week, that so-called reality collided with one huge fact — that a younger, more ethnically diverse and liberal population is increasing in size. Resistance is futile, as they say in those science fiction movies, but as long as the conservative right live in a media cocoon and act like sightless bats, trying to find their way with high frequency shrieking that bounces off the walls and only they can hear, you’ve got trouble, my friends. Even Dick Morris, that unctuous pollster and paragon of propriety, had to admit that his prediction of a Romney landslide was wrong because, “This isn’t your father’s America.”

But then there’s the money. On the McGovern campaign, I was paid the munificent sum of forty dollars a week. In those days, it was considered a decent salary for political work, especially as most of us slept on other people’s couches, ate free meals usually prepared by liberal faculty wives (I haven’t been able to look at gazpacho since) and frankly, there never was time to spend it anyway.

So to me, the contrast with today’s paychecks for top campaign staffers and consultants is especially stunning. Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported:

“In the presidential race alone, the two main media firms working for President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney earned profits for handling more than half a billion dollars of campaign advertising, according to disclosures and ad tracking data. Neither company is required to report how much it received in compensation for that work, but their combined cut could easily be $25 million or more at standard industry rates.”

As for salaries, “Romney paid his top advisers more than Obama paid his, including handing out about $500,000 in bonuses for senior staff in August and September, records show. As of Oct. 17, campaign manager Matt Rhoades had received $292,000 in salary and bonuses, compared with $197,000 for Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.”

Not the mega-millions paid to Wall Street CEOs, but nonetheless that’s a lot of gazpacho.

As others have noted, Karl Rove is in deep explaining mode, rationalizing what happened to those hundreds of millions the fat cats spent bankrolling his saturation bombing of attack ads against the President and other Democrats who emerged victorious in spite of the wrath of Rove. And he’s not alone.

“Never before has so much political money been spent to achieve so little,” the Post noted. “Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no discernible effect on the outcome of most races… Indeed, if election investments are like the stock market, a lot of billionaires just lost their shirts.”

But as Nicholas Confessore writes in The New York Times, “Though the outcome of the 2012 elections dealt a blow to the wealthy donors who poured several hundred million dollars into groups seeking to defeat Mr. Obama, the president’s re-election does not presage a repudiation of the deregulated campaign financing unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Instead, his victory most likely reinforced the practice.”

“In virtually every respect, the growth of unlimited fund-raising and the move of outside groups to the mainstream of politics have magnified the already outsized role of money in political campaigns. They have changed how incumbents and challengers alike campaign and raise money, altered how voters experience politics, and expanded the influence of a small group of large donors on the policies and messages espoused by candidates.”

What’s more, the non-partisan, investigative journalism group, The Center for Public Integrity notes that outside spending indeed made a “big difference in state-level races.” They report, “Contests for the top executive and judicial spots, in states whose bans on corporate outside spending were invalidated by the [Citizens United] ruling, were newly shaped by unlimited cash from out-of-state corporate and union treasuries.”

You may think that such mixed results might dampen enthusiasm for restoring campaign finance reform or even overturning Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. Think again. On Election Day, voters in both Montana and Colorado passed by three-to-one margins orders directing legislators to support an amendment. That makes eleven states in all, according to the group Free Speech for People, which is about a quarter of the way toward getting the deed done — if all the proper i’s and t’s were to be dotted and crossed.

The question is whether this groundswell for transparency and reform continues and builds — or whether the candidates and incumbents so dependent on transfusions of campaign cash smother the effort in its crib. But like that old joke about what you call 500 politicians at the bottom of the ocean, it’s a good start.

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  • Progressive Woman

    My opinion, or open letter. No one published it.


    The New York Times November 2, 2012
    The Washington Post
    USA Today
    Associated Press

    As we view the devastation caused by
    hurricane Sandy and listen to the frustrations of the people left in
    “her” wake, I pose this question: Who is responsible for
    cleanup, aid, protection?

    Obviously people will be pitching in to
    assist in the cleanup, and insurance companies will be cutting checks
    for those who held insurance, but how much, really, will that
    contribute to the massive job ahead? Who will fix the
    infrastructure; the roads, bridges, city, county, state and federal
    buildings? The libraries and schools? Wastewater plants, sewer and
    water lines? Public transportation?

    For those who insist that we need
    smaller government and that our government should “get out of our
    business”, my questions to you are….who, then, will provide the
    resources to clean up your home, your town, your State? Who funds
    the National Guard? Who provides flood insurance, police and fire
    protection, public education?

    Will you be counting on the kindness of
    others to take these on? Will your local churches and service
    organizations be where all your assistance comes from? Do you
    believe those with the means will rise to the occasion and provide
    the billions of dollars to restore the lives of these people, our
    fellow citizens? Considering the massive amounts of money it will
    take to rebuild and restore land, water, buildings and lives, I
    surmise the only individuals with the capacity to provide that amount
    of financial assistance would be billionaires – um, yes, that 1% we
    dare not ask to pay more taxes. Are you counting on them? Because
    if smaller government is what you want, that is who you will have
    to rely on. If we don’t fund our government through tax revenue, our
    government is not able to provide disaster relief, underwrite flood
    insurance, keep us safe, educate our children. Services we rely on
    without putting much thought to how we get them. Who, then, will do
    these things?

    So many people now view government as
    the root of all evil, the cause of our problems. When do folks start
    looking at the other side of the issue? We have roads, highways
    (with rest areas!), a nation- wide electrical grid, the best military
    in the world, school for everyone. That, folks, is our government

    Don’t want national health care? Then
    refuse your Medicare. Yes, people, Medicare is a national
    (government), program! If you have children with disabilities and
    they are on Medicaid, refuse it! Medicaid is provided by the
    government. We already have
    national health care for select populations. If you don’t
    believe in it, then refuse to accept it. Then figure out who
    will pay that hospital bill, therapy session, home health aid. Why,
    you will.

    My caution to everyone voting for
    smaller government this year is:

    Be careful what you
    vote for. You might get it.


    I agree with progressive Woman, there is a limit to private enterprise and that’s why we chose a system to manage our countries called “GOVERNMENT”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1659975688 Laura Robinson Morris

    Elect this woman…she thinks like she loves this wonderful USA and ALL it’s people! Your letter is well written and right-on-target! Loved reading all that Ryan/Ayn Rand stuff during the campaign and especially the part where she TOOK Social Security but under a different name. Transparency, now that is a good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KJoyBunn Karen Bunn

    I am still amazed that the GOP was so convinced by their own myth that they were going to win the election. I can’t believe that they chose to reject cold, hard data from polls other than their own as skewed. Is magical thinking such a part of GOP culture that they are a list cause? I hear them busily trying to throw together the perfect Latino (or their idea of that) to attract the Latino vote as if that person (Marco Rubio?) we’re a human fishing lure; a rubber worm with sparklers a feathers attached. It’s like they think Latinos won’t know the difference adding insult to injury. They are bound to extirpate themselves as any unadaptable species would. I believe it is too late for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/linda.garland.98 Linda Garland

    Beautiful and truthful literary piece. It may not have made “the cut” to publish in that paper, that day, that week…but this piece should be kept and reviewed and shared, for it is the truth and we all need to stop – learn – and think. We are our government and the ills of a free country pose it’s challenges but we can get over these hurdles that appear each decade, each score and each century. We can do this!

  • Anonymous

    More correctly, because there WOULD BE NO LIMITS on private enterprise, . . we chose a system to manage our countries called “GOVERNMENT”.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting. The monikers liberal and conservative are as meaningless as one can feasibly imagine. People can be liberal or conservative in handling regressive or progressive needs. Regressives have fallen in love with liberally using expenditures on the war on terror and the war on drugs. People have to come to terms that the terms carry more weight than conservative and liberal now. The key question that people need to answer honestly is what do they they want government to handle. Until that happens the politicans are implicitly arguing philosophy not policy.

  • Pammyams

    You are so right on the button. I just drove from Louisiana up to Kansas on alternative highways and was pleasantly surprised at how good the roads were and the number of rest areas along the way. This is the doing of government. I don’t know if people take pills to get stupid or if they’re just born that way. Government supports us all when we really need it. I wish more people watched Bill Moyers!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gerrycoop Gerald Cooper

    A suggestion – make contact with editor of your paper’s editorial page, show that you are responsible, concerned, not “crazy.” then submit well-written letters or op eds that meet their specs, and be persistent.

  • Stephen Stanton

    Oh, I love that article!!! Ever since the election results putting our guy and lots of other democrats back for another term, I’ve wished I was a fly on the wall to hear The Architect try to explain to the likes of Adelson, just why the Repugnicans failed in their bids and as Bill put it, just how all that money went for nothing. My joy was complete when I learned yesterday that California’s Senator Dan Lundgren went down to defeat after refusing to concede a 4000-point lead by the Democratic winner. Let’s keep the steamroller rolling.

  • http://twitter.com/Power_PB Patrick B

    The lack of impact swaths of money had on this election is
    impressive given that the 2012 election had 154% increase in total outside
    funds as compared to 2008. Additionally, eleven political action committees and
    PACs spent a combined $328.3 million dollars and got less than 25% of the
    outcome they sought. Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and the NRA could have done
    as much good by using their piles of money to send smoke signals. What also
    stands out is that most of political money went to opposing candidates rather
    than supporting them. More investigation could be done on the effectiveness of political
    ads in the sea that voters now live in. More analysis, charts of ~35 biggest
    money spender effectiveness and overall spending 2004-2012 available here: