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For the three decades plus that I have been in politics, I have been a passionate advocate of the clean money agenda, especially public financing of campaigns and the overturning of one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history, Citizens United. Multiple times over the years, I have been a consultant on money in politics campaigns, and have always considered it a very high priority. As someone who has done high level fundraising for many different Presidential, Senate, and House campaigns, and has been involved in a great many policy battles where I was fighting the power of big money special interests, I know well the large and pernicious power of big money in politics. No cause should do more to unite the progressive movement than doing something serious about it. But there’s a new money in politics issue that is splitting progressives right down the middle.
The new organization that people close to President Obama set up (OFA, Organizing for Action) is causing some consternation among some people in the movement to reform money in politics. Bob Edgar, my old friend and comrade in arms on this issue, and the president of Common Cause, said, “If President Obama is serious about his often-expressed desire to rein in big money in politics, he should shut down Organizing for Action and disavow any plan to schedule regular meetings with its major donors. With its reported promise of quarterly presidential meetings for donors and ‘bundlers’ who raise $500,000, Organizing For Action apparently intends to extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end.”
As much as I agree with Bob on his ideals and long-term goals, I think he is profoundly wrong this time around.
To say a President and other politicians shouldn’t try to raise money to help fight for his agenda is simply wrong -- especially with the huge buckets of money being raised and spent to fight him. When gun manufacturers and the NRA are dumping tens of millions of dollars into ads and mail and calls to scare the hell out of gun owners and stop common sense gun safety laws, with no restrictions on their raising or spending, and Republican politicians being delighted to show up at their events, why shouldn’t the President raise everything he can to win the fight? When nativist anti-immigrant groups are raising millions to fight immigration reform, why shouldn’t the President raise money to answer them? When coal and oil companies spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying, PR, campaign contributions, and phony “think tank” contributions toward climate science denial, the President is supposed to tie both hands behind his back and do nothing to speak out against it?
Just because I am for reforming the money-in-politics system in Washington doesn’t mean I believe progressives- including progressive politicians- should stop raising money, including money in big chunks, if need be. It guarantees that progressives will lose almost all of the time if they don't, and these issues are too critically important to give up on any chance of winning the fight.
Here’s the other point that I think is worth making: not all interest groups, and not all money raised in politics is the same. I know this point will raise the hackles of the "pox on all their houses" crowd, but if you are raising money to, say, keep five-year-olds from being killed by semi-automatics, it is qualitatively different than, say, raising money to make sure your massively profitable Wall Street bank doesn’t have to worry about regulations or being taxed much. Groups like Wall Street trade associations that are specifically about helping their narrow industry to keep maximizing their profit have a fundamentally different purpose than non-profits who are trying to serve the broader public interest. To say that all money is the same, that all lobbying is the same, is deeply wrong- and Common Cause- a public interest group that raises millions of dollars per year, some of it in very large contributions, to promote the greater good- should know better.
I’m glad the president is raising money for good causes like common sense gun safety and immigration reform, and I am glad he is seeking to build progressive infrastructure at a time that people like the Koch brothers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to advance far right causes. That is exactly what Obama should be doing. Bob Edgar and the folks at Common Cause should recognize that not all organizations working in politics are the same, and not all fundraising is wrong. You would think that being an advocacy organization fighting for good things in politics, one that raises millions of dollars to do it, would make that distinction.