Flipping on the television last night, I was struck by how utterly vapid the media's coverage of the presidential fundraising numbers really is. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but there's something, well, surreal about watching Adam Nagourney and Charlie Rose sit there chin-scratching like Serious Thinkers while spending a full 15-20 minutes of airtime trying to bend FEC numbers into a Vegas-style handicapping system, without so much as a word about what industries are buying what from whom with those contributions. And mind you, this was public television, where the coverage is supposed to be "substantive."
I'm not going to spend much time speculating on why the coverage is the way it is because it's likely due not to some conspiracy or ideology, but to sheer, utter, unadulterated laziness - it just takes way fewer brain cells to discuss how, for instance, Hillary Clinton raising $26 million means she's a "frontrunner" than, say, trying to figure out what all that money actually BOUGHT from Hillary Clinton in terms of positions, promises, etc. As a reporter, you actually have to do a little bit of what's known as "real work" to get that information, and come on, people - that's too much to ask. As a citizen not paid full-time to report, you have to really dig through this mess of noise to get even the vaguest sense of the high-rolling auction taking place - but if you look in the right places, you can figure it out what's really going on.
Take a glance around the news-o-sphere today and you'll see the outlines of Hostile Takeover 2008: Democrats Gone Wild. Buried at the very bottom of a New York Times story marveling at Barack Obama's ability to shakedown wealthy Chicago scions for big cash, we find out that one of the Illinois senator's biggest donors is the family that owns one of the largest defense contractors in the world, General Dynamics. What a shock, then, that Obama hasn't discussed our bloated military budget even though polls show the public wants that budget reeled in. What a surprise to see Obama triangulating against potential plans to reduce funding for the Iraq War. But whether you believe the connection between defense industry contributions and politicians' rhetoric (or lack thereof) is real or not, what's perhaps even more shocking is the media's refusal to mention it as a possibility - even with the hard data staring reporters in the face.
Then there is this story in the Politico that adds to a previous story in Businessweek about how Wall Street CEOs are now being allowed to write the entire economic platform of prospective Democratic candidates. Here are a few excerpts:
"In a suite of offices three doors down Massachusetts Avenue from the Brookings Institution headquarters, Hillary Clinton's closest Wall Street allies are drawing up economic policy for the next Democratic administration. The offices belong to the Hamilton Project, a small think tank created by Robert E. Rubin, Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary and key economic adviser, and former Treasury deputy secretary Roger C. Altman, who would be a front-runner for the same job in a new Clinton administration...At the same time, Rubin is a key Wall Street ally of both Clintons, and a dominant player in Democratic Party economic policy. Altman served as a liaison between Sen. Clinton and Wall Street leaders...It's a bid for her attention placed by influential supporters and key fundraisers; along with Rubin and Altman, other key Clinton Wall Street allies, including New York bankers Steven Rattner and Blair Effron, serve on the Hamilton Project's Advisory Council. (The council also includes two Wall Street supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, Mark Gallogly and Eric Mindich.)"
This kind of thing is bleeding over rather publicly into the congressional arena. The Washington Post has a new story about Wal-Mart buying off Democratic lawmakers and staff in the U.S. Senate. Sebastian Mallaby, meanwhile, cheers on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) for his efforts to represent his Wall Street donors' wishes by publicly humiliating economists asking Congress to respect the 2006 election mandate and make trade policy better represent the needs of working people.
All of this, of course, is happening at the same time Democratic elites in Washington are calling for the party to reject any "ideology" in favor of pure personality politics, a slick ruse designed to make sure no one actually asks who is buying what - a ruse that, big surprise, the Beltway press corps is swallowing whole.
Look, I understand that candidates have to raise money - I started as a fundraiser way back in 1998 when I first got into politics. But what's changed is that openly selling access is no longer considered taboo - it's become just as much part of Democratic Party culture as it has Republican Party culture. Democrats, just like Republicans, don't even try to hide corruption (and when in the few times they do, we find they aren't even willing to stick to the spirit of their own pledges). On the contrary, as we see, Democratic candidates have clearly become just as publicly proud of their own corruption as Republicans have been of theirs. And that has happened, not surprisingly, at the very same time reporters have stopped even pretending that they care to cover anything other than the horse race when it comes to the money chase. The best we can hope for, it seems, is for a show like CBS's 60 Minutes to air an albeit substantive piece about the pay-to-play culture more than 3 years after an atrocity like the drug-industry-written Medicare bill is jammed through Congress. But any real-time reporting has all but vanished.
Don't look over here at what's being purchased, say millionaire Democratic campaign consultants, look over here at our latest YouTube video and our neat new website and our well-coiffed candidate posing for pictures with babies - and reporters obediently follow. Don't look over here at what's being sold off, say career Democratic operatives and other assorted gophers, look over here at how eloquent and smooth and "authentic" our candidate is - and power-worshipping pundits happily oblige. And then after another NAFTA is passed, after another deregulation scheme is championed, after another bill is pushed through jacking up the defense budget once again, the professional navel-gazers who populate Washington's symposium circuit somehow wonder why Americans are so cynical about politics.