Think Tanks, 503s and Rush Limbaugh--What's The Real "Soft Money"

Donohue has helped manufacture controversy in the past in situations that also conveniently gave Republican politicians a boost in their pro-Catholic image.
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My article detailing my story of how the right wing noise machine hounded me and the Edwards campaign with false accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry is now up on Salon's website. One thing that went unmentioned in the article is that the Catholic League's leader Bill Donohue, the one who was able to fabricate an accusation against me and Melissa McEwan that would make it to the mainstream media, was quite possibly violating the tax laws governing the political involvement of 503 non-profit organizations, not just when he publicly demanded that he and his organization have control over the staffing decisions of the Edwards campaign, but repeatedly over the years, as detailed by Matt Browner Hamlin.

The fact of the matter is that the Catholic League isn't really a pro-Catholic organization so much as an organization dedicated to the task of demonizing liberals, feminists, and Democrats as anti-Catholic, which just so happens to be to the benefit of the Republican party. Tedra Osell has more on Donohue's real crusade against liberals. Donohue has helped manufacture controversy in the past in situations that also conveniently gave Republican politicians a boost in their pro-Catholic image. The most noteworthy incident is when Donohue raised a ruckus over the show "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which gave Rudy Giuliani a chance to puff up his social conservative credentials, even though he is pro-choice and pro-gay rights.

The Catholic League may function as an arm of the Republican party, but they have no legal relationship, so while the League may have troubles with the IRS, they are not in violation of any campaign finance reform laws. The BCRA of 2002, often known as the McCain-Feingold Act, was a bipartisan act that worked primarily by banning soft money donations and issues ads. Both parties took a financing hit from this act, but in the long run, the damage was much worse to the Democrats than to the Republicans. Why? Because the BCRA did little to nothing to assault the well-financed pro-Republican infrastructure that works day in and day out to help cultivate loyal Republican voters. The Democrats have nothing like it.

The infrastructure is made of a series of organizations that are technically non-partisan but functionally pro-Republican.

  • Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or Concerned Women for America.

  • Non-profit organizations like the Catholic League that use cover stories like "fighting anti-Catholic bigotry" to in fact push conservatism and often, as we've seen this past week, openly engage in partisan politics. The Christian Coalition was a non-profit group, but was stripped of their status for violating the tax code so repeatedly.

  • Legal advocacy groups that are similar to the ACLU, but less principled, such as the Federalist Society.

  • And of course, the independent right wing media, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh.
  • Lately, the only place liberals compete with conservatives in terms of financing have been in single issue advocacy groups and soft money party donations. Unsurprisingly, the McCain-Feingold Act banned the second outright and severely limited the power of the former, but left large areas where Republicans have a big edge over Democrats alone completely. If you want to know why the Republicans continue to turn over electoral gains while pursuing policies that are wildly unpopular, this is a big part of your answer. And it's also a big factor in why I got harassed out of my job with the Edwards campaign---there is so much money pouring into the coffers of organizations that are technically not partisan but functionally Republican that they have the resources to spare for efforts like picking off campaign staffers for Democratic candidates.

    Don't despair, because there's plenty you can do to help.

  • If you see people like Bill Donohue being represented in the mainstream media as mainstream advocates instead of right wing shills, contact the media source and complain that they are not disclosing the full information to their audience.
  • If you see a representative of a non-profit organization possibly violating anti-lobbying tax laws, file a complaint with the IRS.
  • Support liberal attempts to build legal and ethical infrastructure to combat the right wing noise machine. Consider giving money to single issue advocacy groups that support liberal causes and Democratic candidates.
  • Support liberal media sources that are challenging the domination of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Read liberal blogs and alternative news sources like Salon and Huffington Post.
  • We may not have the financial resources that the right has, but we do have the energy and the passion.

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