Democratic Squeamishness

June 26, 2012 1:14 p.m.

We’re just over three four months out from the election, and Democrats are resigning themselves to the fact that, with the help of big dollar donations to outside groups, Republicans are going to handily out-raise them this cycle. President Obama is emailing supporters warning that he’ll be the first presidential incumbent to raise less than his opponent. Conservative SuperPACs and other groups fronting money from anonymous wealthy Republicans want to make examples of vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents this November.

And yet, wealthy Democratic donors just haven’t stepped up — to the great frustration of party operatives.

Today, Sen. Sherrod Brown — one of the main targets of this spending tsunami — sat down with us and talked about why Democrats can’t reach parity with Republicans under prevailing circumstances. And I think his views get at two key differences between the parties.“Part of it is if George Soros wanted to give $50 million to our side, and we won, he wouldn’t get any material gain. When [Harold] Simmons from Texas, and the Koch brothers, and Adelson and these guys, they give their 10 or 20 or 50 million each, they get great benefit if their side wins. They get tax cuts, they get weaker environmental laws, they get anti-labor rules,” Brown said. “There is so much more incentive for them to do it.”

But it’s not just about Republican means and motives. As Brown put it, “A number of wealthy Democrats just think it’s unseemly to put this kind of money into these political campaigns. They really don’t like — morally, they have some moral objections. I mean, we hear that frequently. Their side doesn’t seem to have any of those. Because for them it’s an investment, like investing in a new company — only this is one with really big payoffs.”

Part of this goes back to a little-discussed but key reality underlying the different incentives Democratic and Republican supporters face, given existing electoral and lobbying rules. To a greater extent than is true for Democrats, Republican donors can view this kind of giving in simple transactional terms. The cost of doing business.

But that can’t explain it all. There are plenty of rent-seekers in Democratic politics, too, and even if they’re out-moneyed by their GOP counterparts, that still doesn’t explain the yawning gap in outside spending.

So what does? At the risk of veering into pop psychology, I think what we’re witnessing in Democratic fundraising is a phenomenon familiar to anybody who watched Democratic politicians struggle so mightily with a consensus platform in 2009 and 2010 — an aversion to using existing rules to maximum political benefit, if doing so exposes a level of hypocrisy, or risks entrenching dangerous political norms.

In 2009, a fear of future reprisals for aggressively using the budget process to advance large pieces of Obama’s agenda largely trumped the party’s commitment to that very agenda. In 2012 a moral objection to the idea of a handful of rich people flooding the airwaves is trumping the commitment to certain other purposes (safety net spending, tax equity, the Affordable Care Act, whatever else is at stake this election).

There are big differences between the two scenarios. And it’s at least arguable that Democrats and their donors will come to regret it if they embrace (and therefore, perhaps, ratify) the post-Citizens United status quo. But at another level I think it’s a surface manifestation of deeper liberal discomfort with seizing advantage and doing uncomfortable things in the service of loftier goals. Right or wrong, that squeamishness doesn’t exist on the right to nearly the same extent.

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