Goo-Goo Punching Bag

If you are of the persuasion that the post-Citizens United regime of unregulated and secret campaign finance practices is the ultimate cause of all the bad stuff happening in politics and government, then Politico‘s Kenneth Vogel and Bryan Tau have got some really depressing news for you:

Embracing the irony of setting up a super PAC that would spend big money in order to fight super PACs and other groups that spend big money, Harvard professor Larry Lessig and GOP strategist Mark McKinnon went all-in on the idea voters would kick megadonors to the curb.

Tuesday, voters shrugged and cast their ballots for business as usual, leaving Mayday and Lessig — who emerged as its public personae — facing questions about the disconnect between its bold predictions and results.

Mayday PAC burst onto the political scene in the spring of 2014 with grandiose designs to elect a pro-campaign finance reform majority to the U.S. Congress by 2016. The 2014 cycle was a test run of sorts — with the group spending more than $10 million on a slate of candidates ostensibly united only in their belief in curbing the influence of big donors, lobbyists and money in the political system.

It was money down the drain.

Senate hopefuls Rick Weiland and Greg Orman and House candidates Paul Clements, Staci Appel and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter — all lost, despite Mayday’s much-touted, high-profile investments in those races. The setbacks across the country on Tuesday follow on the heels of a loss in the New Hampshire primary, when Mayday PAC backed a losing GOP challenger to Scott Brown. In the only race where Mayday PAC backed a winner — supporting Republican Rep. Walter Jones’ in North Carolina — it was hard-pressed to claim credit, since Jones’ reelection to a safe GOP seat was all-but assured without outside help.

Warming to their derisive task, Vogel and Tau twist the knife:

And instead of getting one step closer to a pro-campaign finance reform majority, voters on Tuesday elected enough Senate Republican to handover control of the Senate to Republican Mitch McConnell — perhaps the leading opponent of Mayday’s vision. McConnell has long opposed campaign money restrictions as infringements on free speech and impediments to the free exchange of ideas.

You have to figure one of two things: either Kenneth Vogel and Byron Tau agree with ol’ Mitch’s nauseating identification of freedom with wealth, or Larry Lessig kicked their dogs at some point in the past. I’ve rarely seen “objective” journalists pour so much scorn on a relatively non-powerful person as is devoted here to Lessig. Maybe it just reflects the ancient contempt of Washingtonians for goo-goo (good government) types. But you get the sense Vogel and Tau (and presumably their editors) agree with this cynical comment by a Republican political consultant with which the piece closes:

Though Mayday entered the political fray by citing extensive polling and research about the unhappiness of voters about the level of spending on elections, veteran consultants say that the mission of rallying voters on a single narrow good government issue is essentially impossible.

“Behold the power of super smart people pursuing a boutique policy solution that the average American could not give a damn about if you poked them in the eye with it,” said veteran GOP consultant Rick Wilson about the group’s efforts.

While voters do express high levels of disgust about the state of campaign finance and the level of corruption in Washington, they tend to actually cast votes more on bread-and-butter economic issues.

“I’ve polled it before, I’ve put it in on panels before,” Wilson said about campaign finance reform. “It’s a zero issue. No one cares. They shrug. They already believe that all politicians are corrupt assholes. It’s baked in the cake. They get it.”

How convenient.

UPDATE: When I tweeted about this post, I instantly got a host of reactions from writers I hold in esteem (e.g., Joshua Green, Garance Franke-Ruta) sharing Vogel’s disdain for Lessig, whose tactics and personality have clearly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But nobody much wants to address Vogel’s apparent embrace of those with sneering contempt for the very idea of campaign finance reform.

UPDATE II: I originally attributed the entire piece to Vogel, somehow not noticing the unhighlighted name of co-author Tau. Apologies; it doesn’t change what I had to say, or the apparently strong support they have in holding Lawrence Lessig in minimum high regard.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.