Opinion Columns & Blogs

Two things are important in politics

Mark Hanna, a wealthy Ohio industrialist, while managing the winning presidential campaign of William McKinley put such a heavy arm on his corporate colleagues that McKinley’s campaign outraised and outspent Democrat William Jennings Bryan by more than 10 to one. Hanna knew whereof he spoke when he concluded: “There are two things that are important in politics . The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Extended stretches of my own youth and early middle age were spent happily, if not entirely triumphantly, working on political campaigns — which raised and spent many millions of dollars — in some 38 states and Venezuela.

Raising money politically turned me into an anti-Calvinist — convinced that God gave money to the least thoughtful and least appealing of her creatures. You have no idea how degrading it can be to fake interest while being subjected to some wealthy buffoon’s nutty theory on how agnostics are conspiring to take over the world of polo or pork-belly futures.

Hanna would have loved the 2010 campaign, in which — thanks to a truly bizarre ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this year — interest groups have raised and spent unlimited sums from corporations and wealthy individuals without ever disclosing who gave a million or a grand. Over the last 38 years in American politics, because of campaign reform laws we went from incomplete and very fuzzy disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures to nearly full-disclosure. Thanks to the John Roberts court, we are headed to a politics of no-disclosure.

Just consider what is happening in Iowa’s First Congressional District (Davenport, Dubuque, Waterloo), where Democrat Bruce Braley, who received 65 percent of the vote in 2008, was favored to win a third House term. But that was before the American Future Fund, a 501(c) (4) group that can collect unlimited millions and is not required to disclose any of its donors, indicated it would spend at least $800,000 on TV and in direct-mail advertising attacking Braley’s record.

And what if some of the charges the group levels against the Iowa Democrat are inaccurate and untrue? Sorry, there is no personal or institutional accountability. There is no place to register your complaints — just a mailbox at a UPS outlet.

Braley is a formidable candidate, and he may well withstand the high-priced assaults from the anonymous, deep-pocketed interests. But some previously “safe” congressional incumbent will not be able to answer and rebut a million dollars in anonymous attack ads, and that, I can promise you, will have a profound impact on the U.S. Congress.

The first reaction of virtually every member of Congress will be: In order to prevent this ever happening to me, I will have to raise a campaign war chest at least twice as big as this year’s. Washington will see an explosion in fundraising, which because the contributions will come from those with their own explicit agendas, will mean increased partisan polarization and further legislative gridlock.

Political courage, always scarce, will be depleted. Public officials will be even more scared about confronting the special privileges and abuses of any powerful interests with the potential or inclination to write a six- or seven-figure check to a group that does not have to disclose the contribution.

It’s reasonable to assume that much of the money being given to these so-called independent groups (which fund Republicans over Democrats by nine to one ) is from wealthy individuals who want to preserve their significantly reduced tax rates from the George W. Bush era and to eliminate the inheritance tax on their personal fortunes.

“I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Thus did GOP House leader John Boehner, on “ Meet the Press” in February 2007, state the then-nearunanimous Republican principle of full, immediate disclosure, which has now been abandoned in the rabid money-chase for unreported millions.