Mitch McConnell Seeks to Boost Big Money, Again

In the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, former Bill Clinton-pollster Stanley Greenberg discussed areas of agreement between “downscale” white working class voters and reform-minded progressives. His findings came from research he did in concert with Page Gardner’s Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and David Donnelly’s Every Voice. Here’s part of what Greenberg discovered and concluded:

…the white working-class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda, particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and aggressively promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth…

…In recent years, too many Democrats have presumed that the white working class is out of the party’s reach and that talk of reforming government and the political process simply does not move voters. My contention is that both of those presumptions are wrong. An agenda of reform is the key to Democrats winning the greater share of white working-class and unmarried women votes that will give the party the majorities it needs to govern.

So, the key finding is that going after money in politics actually can move voters, and particularly the kind of voters that Democrats have been losing and that they need to broaden their regional appeal and make a run at retaking control of the House of Representatives.

You might think that the Republican Party is aware of this potential weakness and is therefore willing to play defense or maybe even get out in front of the reform process to cut off a likely avenue of attack. If so, you couldn’t be more wrong.

As Politico reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (the least popular member of the Senate) is preparing to introduce a rider into the upcoming must-pass omnibus spending bill.

Senate Republicans plan to insert a provision into a must-pass government funding bill that would vastly expand the amount of cash that political parties could spend on candidates, multiple sources tell POLITICO.

The provision, which sources say is one of a few campaign-finance related riders being discussed in closed-door negotiations over a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending package, would eliminate caps on the amount of cash that parties may spend in coordination with their candidates.

Pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime foe of campaign finance restrictions, the coordination rider represents the latest threat to the increasingly rickety set of rules created to restrict political fundraising and spending on elections.

Campaign finance watchdogs argue that it would allow wealthy donors to exercise even more influence with members of Congress. And they cried foul over the possibility that the provision could be slipped into the omnibus spending bill that Congress is working to pass before a Dec. 11 deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

Campaign-finance watchdog Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, points out that the Republicans tried and failed to get a similar provision through the normal committee process. “They’re using this end-game process to do what they can’t necessarily do in the legislative process.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Democratic leadership is opposed to this change in the law, although that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’ll be willing to cause a government shutdown to prevent it. I don’t know that the Obama administration would veto an omnibus containing this provision, either. The assumption that the Democrats won’t fight on this is the entire point of McConnell’s gambit.

To be sure, there are some reform-minded folks who think the parties have grown too weak relative to outside Super PAC-type organizations, and a few of them believe that giving the parties more power to fund and coordinate with campaigns could serve as a useful tonic.

We can discuss the policy merits of that argument if you like, but there’s also a political argument here. Greenberg identified an area where the Democrats might make some headway by picking a fight, which is in keeping big money out of politics. If they acquiesce to these changes, they’ll be passing up a chance to show that they’re on the side of the small donor and the little guy.

There’s also something to be said for picking a fight with the least popular senator in America, particularly one with a long checkered record of fighting for big money.

Do you remember during McConnell’s reelection campaign last year when The Nation released a surreptitiously recorded audio tape of him addressing a “secret strategy conference of conservative millionaire and billionaire donors hosted by the Koch brothers”?

If you listened to that tape, you can hardly be surprised by what McConnell is planning now:

In the tape, McConnell talks about his plan to attach Republican initiatives to spending bills should he become the Senate majority leader…

“The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of the first administration,” McConnell told the group.

“McCain-Feingold” refers to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which was the last serious attempt to get big money out of politics.

Some people noted that perhaps 9/11 would have been a better day to choose as the “worst day of his life.” But, then, not everyone is accustomed to addressing billionaires in secret strategy sessions.

Returning to Greenberg’s research, here’s what he found happens when you pitch a plan to get big money out of politics before you pitch them on a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren-type plan to soak the rich to help the middle class:

In a straight test, the presidential electorate is as enthusiastic about a reform narrative as the middle-class economic one. The first part of the narrative focuses on big business and special interests that give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the country billions. The second part emphasizes how special interests and the bureaucracy protect out-of-date programs that don’t work. The bottom line of the narrative is that government reform would free up money so the government could work for middle-class and working families rather than big donors.

Most importantly, when voters hear the reform narrative first, they are then dramatically more open to the middle-class economic narrative that calls for government activism in response to America’s problems.

Among voters who heard the reform message first, 43 percent describe the middle-class economic narrative as very convincing—11 points higher than when they hear the economic message first. Among white working-class voters in particular, this effect produced a 13-point jump in intensity for the Democrats’ middle-class economic message (from 27 to 40 percent).

Clearly, these white working-class and downscale voters are open to a bold Democratic agenda and prefer it to a conservative Republican vision for the country. To win their support, however, voters are demanding, with growing ferocity, that Democrats battle against America’s corrupted politics and for a government that really works for the average citizen.

If Greenberg is correct and these voters are gettable but not until the Democrats meet their “ferocious demands” that the government work for them and not big donors, then it should be obvious what to do about McConnell’s omnibus rider.

Fight.

Right?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.