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Why Money in Politics Is Still a Really Big Deal

Money in politics remains the greatest danger to government of, by, and for the people, and the 2012 elections only made a bad situation worse.
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Since the 2012 elections -- the most expensive in history at a cost of $6 billion -- there has been a growing media narrative that because Sheldon Adelson's millions and Karl Rove's super PACs didn't defeat Barack Obama or create a Republican Senate, money in politics and post-Citizens United super PACs really aren't such a big deal.

Indeed this line has often been most pronounced in the liberal media, which has enjoyed itself by gloating, "Ha ha, Sheldon Adelson wasted his money and Karl Rove turned out to be a fool."

A smiling James Carville (who, along with his Republican wife, earn a good part of his living from political consulting funded by campaign contributions) told Rolling Stone, "Never have so few spent so much to accomplish so little. We all freak out that the money in politics is going to change everything. As it turned out, it really didn't change that much."

To which I respond, "Bullsh*t!" The outsized influence of money in politics pre-selects the candidates of both parties, defines and delimits the range of issues and circumscribes what elected officials even attempt to accomplish once in office. Money in politics remains the greatest danger to government of, by, and for the people, and the 2012 elections only made a bad situation worse.

Certainly the billionaires who invest in candidates and the consultants who spend their money don't think they wasted their political investments in 2012 and only plan to come back bigger and better in coming elections.

Adelson -- who reportedly contributed $150 million to 2012 campaigns -- isn't crying over his investment losses and tells the Wall Street Journal that he plans to double his political investments in 2016.

Karl Rove -- who runs the biggest Republican super PACs -- writes in his own Wall Street Journal column that conservative super PACs and their donors are "in it for the long haul... Their attitude is: The fight goes on, beat 'em next time."

And not to be left behind, Politico reports that

[s]hortly after Election Day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and top White House aides spoke at a three-day secret meeting of major Democratic donors and officials from liberal outside groups gearing up for 2014...Their goal: a permanent network of officially blessed independent groups that leverages liberals' increasing acceptance and appreciation of outside money.

So some media commentators may think that 2012 proved that money in politics doesn't matter all that much. But the millionaires, billionaires and corporations in the class that invests in politicians, and the consultants who advise them clearly think it matters a whole lot. And they'll be back bigger and better in coming elections with super PACs 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0. Unless they're all plain stupid -- which is extremely unlikely -- they must know something about the value of their political investments.

One of the things they know is that the extravagant costs of running for election, and the need for members of both parties to raise huge sums of money from the richest Americans, means that neither party will carry out, or even debate, policies which threaten the plutocracy.

Take climate change, probably the greatest threat on the horizon to the nation and the world. But the issue was all but invisible in the 2012 campaign. Except for Mitt Romney's snide remarks at the Republican convention about Barack Obama wanting to stop the rise of the oceans, and Michael Bloomberg's late endorsement of Obama after Hurricane Sandy, neither presidential candidate discussed the greatest threat to the future -- global climate change -- as an issue in the campaign. And the likelihood is that in his second term, President Obama will do little to combat global climate change because no meaningful legislation can get through Congress. Does anyone really think this has nothing to do with the tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash spread around Congress by Exxon Mobil, the Koch Brothers and other corporations and billionaires in the energy industry?

And despite the fact that a vast majority of voters told pollsters that they cared more about jobs than the deficit, the deficit -- not job creation -- has dominated the political debate in Washington and in the media since the election. Does anyone really think this has nothing to do with the influence of Wall Street, Chamber of Commerce and super PAC money in the election?

Moreover, Fix the Debt, a nominally bipartisan alliance of CEO's, many of whom supported Romney, has raised $42 million for a post-election campaign for what Paul Krugman has characterized as "campaigning for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even while making lower tax rates a 'core principle.'" The corruption of the political system by big money doesn't stop when the election cycle ends.

And speaking of the overarching issue of money in politics, was it ever mentioned in the Presidential campaign? President Obama is nominally on record in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. A recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll found that 81 percent of voters agree that "there is too much big money spent on political campaigns and elections today and reasonable limits should be placed on campaign contributions and spending". More specifically, 62 percent oppose the Citizens United decision and nearly half (46 percent) strongly oppose it. But in the course of the most expensive political campaign in history, did Obama ever mention the issue? Is President Obama going to try to make ending the corrupting influence of outsized campaign contributions part of his presidential legacy? Not likely.

So, for the wealthy political investor class, it's always heads we win, tails you lose. There are real policy differences between a centrist Democratic Party and a far-right Republican Party. But when it comes to the biggest issues that really matter, money always wins out. And contrary to the myth that money didn't count all that much in the 2012 elections, the $6 billion election only reinforced the power of big money in politics, and it will be reinforced further in future elections if nothing is done to reverse it.

Unless the pervasive influence of big money in elections is ended, America will never be able to solve its biggest pressing problems, whether climate change, debt, taxes, financial regulation, education, or health care, energy, or the environment. As centrist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, the best America will be able to come up with is "sub-optimal" solutions, since in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.

In addition to defining the narrow limits of political debate and available solutions to America's biggest problems, the outsized influence of money in politics continues to have other nefarious effects. Long before election campaigns, the "money primary" defines who can even run for office. If a potential candidate can't raise large sums early, forget even trying. (Remember, Barack Obama won the money primary against Hillary Clinton early in 2007 by out-fundraising her among Wall Street donors. And although Wall Street may have somewhat abandoned Obama for their compatriot Mitt Romney in 2012, don't think that didn't impact Obama going easy on the big Wall Street Banks in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008.)

Moreover, money has an even bigger influence in elections for the House, state legislatures and judgeships, than it does in presidential elections where both candidates come in heavily armed. A big infusion of outside money can quickly swing a race that "only" costs a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars, and the fear of that money entering the race can control what congressperson or state legislator will do to take on special interests while in office. At its most insidious, contributions to low visibility judicial campaigns by business interests with potential cases before judges can corrupt the legal system.

Moreover, in the 2010 elections, Republican super PACs outspent Democratic super PACs by 4-1 in state elections which helped them gain control of a number of state legislatures. They immediately used that power to gerrymander Congressional districts to all but guarantee that Republicans would control the House for the next decade, regardless of voter sentiment. Largely as a result, in the 2012 elections, Democrats received approximately 1 million more votes in House races than Republicans but the Republicans have more than a 30-seat majority in the House.

Whatever other issue you care about, and whether you're moderate, liberal or conservative, if we don't solve the problem of the outsized influence of money in politics -- by amending the Constitution if necessary -- no big solutions will be found to America's pressing problems. That was true before the 2012 elections, and $6 billion later, it's all the more true after them.