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Saturday, July 08, 2017


All in the family

by Tom Sullivan

The Cesspool of Sin was approaching peak New Age when I arrived. Every other person in Asheville was on a spiritual journey and looking to monetize it. (Landlords and utility companies weren't taking payments in crystals or massages.) Every practitioner was "internationally recognized" and writing books, posting flyers, or giving seminars on cosmic neuro-nuclear transmigration or some such. You could take the class at the Airport Ramada. $50 for the weekend workshop got you a laser-printed certificate and professional-seeming letters you could tack onto the end of your name. Then it was time for printing up business cards and hanging out shingles.

The spirituality business was sincere, and yet tawdry and a bit lost. There were spirituality trade shows.

For politicos, this capitalist taint, this petite mort, does not come with the first encounter with lobbyists and PAC money as many suspect. What a lot of new activists don't understand (and I am just grasping) is that it starts very early and innocently.

A week ago, I waved a campaign manager off pursuing young, connected Democratic professionals for a staff position. For one, aspiring political professionals were not likely to hire on to a campaign they did not see as a sure winner. Secondly, they were not likely to be compatible with this candidate.

Young politicos jump into the game the same way the New Agers did: to pursue a passion. They begin as Young Democrats and interns. They cannot wait to attend political functions and rub elbows with high-profile elected officials. They angle for selfies with the "poohbahs," as one friend put it, and can't wait to get the pictures up on Facebook to show family and friends just how connected they are. Perhaps they graduate to a legislative assistant position for some state representative or senator. They transition to employment with another one. Or perhaps, even to a permanent position with a committee in the legislature or Congress.

By the time they decide to run for office themselves, they have an established network of party friends, colleagues, and former employers with endorsements and fundraising lists to kick off their first campaign. Unless a party insider smoother, better looking, or better connected enters the race, they become their party’s default candidate right out of the gate. As a known quantity and trusted, they are already an establishment candidate and haven't seen the first dollar of PAC or lobbyist money. Although this is not true of everyone, the need to maintain those professional relationships and a team-player image limits the range of policies they can entertain.

It's not that they are not nice people with progressive leanings. It is just that, as budding political careerists looking to turn their passion for politics into a profession that pays the bills (massage is right out), their political judgments are colored by a desire to pursue their next professional leg up. For that reason alone, it is a good bet that last year young Democratic careerists were almost uniformly Hillary Clinton supporters.

Or perhaps instead of elective office, they hang out a shingle in the consulting world where the same network of friends, colleagues, and former employers ensures that when it's time to spend campaign donations, the careerists are on speed dial. No matter their skill or track record, they are members of the club. Either way, people in this business learn early on not to violate the one unbreakable rule Elizabeth Warren heard from Larry Summers: Insiders don't criticize other insiders. It's not just about money. The business is a fraternity.

That's why those who are not by nature "joiners" often remain outside critics rather than players and nothing changes.

Writing for Harper's, Andrew Cockburn dives into the Democrats' political professional culture and how money drives insiders as much as passion drives the noobs. At the election this February in Atlanta of Democratic National Committee officers, "party heavyweights" worked behind the scenes to stop Rep. Keith Ellison's election as national party chair. Meanwhile, the party's relationship to donors was up for debate:

In one of his more progressive acts, Obama had banned his party from soliciting or accepting corporate PAC money. But in 2016, it emerged that D.N.C. chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had lifted the ban. It was done in secret, but almost certainly with White House approval. “We were never told about it,” said Christine Pelosi, a member of the D.N.C. executive committee (and the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader). “We read about it online, months later.”

Pelosi, who describes herself as an “antiestablishment establishment person,” had come to Atlanta with a resolution to reinstate Obama’s ban. She immediately ran into furious opposition. “We lost a thousand seats because we didn’t have corporate money,” one senior party functionary assured her. Pelosi dismissed her argument. “There was plenty of money,” she told me, in spite of Obama’s ban. As for the $18 million in corporate funds that came in after the ban was lifted, that went straight into Clinton’s campaign chest.

The contrary view was most succinctly summarized by Terry Lierman, a longtime friend and supporter of Perez and a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party. He told me that the party should of course solicit from corporations—“because that’s where the money is.” (He did add a pious reference to the “energy” of small donors.) As it turned out, this perspective was shared by most delegates, no doubt including those who were themselves lobbyists for major corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, and Pfizer. When all those opposed to Pelosi’s effort were asked to stand up, a solid majority shot to their feet.
Notice the attribution of the nationwide losses to lack of sufficient funds rather than lack of state-level organization and message. In the spirit of "those who can't, teach," functionaries who cannot inspire the flood of small donations a Bernie Sanders or even a Jon Ossoff can see big donors as the default source of operating cash. And once they have it, they prefer it stays in the fraternity to support their friends. Once again, no matter what their skills.

The support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) comes with strings. You want their money? You have to spend it with their friends. Jon Ossoff found out in the recent Georgia 6th District runoff. The relentless-and-breathless flood of Ossoff emails and the milquetoast television ads bore all the marks of the DCCC's pet consultants.

The party's relationship with its consultant class has to change, Sarah Jones wrote at The New Republic. "Amidst the wreckage of Ossoff’s campaign there emerges only one winner: Mothership Strategies, which reportedly earned $3.9 million for its work. Everyone else—voters, the party, the candidate Mothership promoted—lost."

It is not just the money. It is a culture. Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas wrote about it a decade ago in "Crashing the Gate." They begin one chapter with a quote by a Republican operative:
"I don't get it. When a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot them. You guys -- keep hiring them."
Congressman Brad Carson was running for Senate in Oklahoma in 2004 when he ran up against the consultancy. As an underdog, a "business as usual" campaign was not going to cut it. So Carson sought out Steve Eichenbaum, the Milwaukee-based advertising executive whose clever ads helped Russ Feingold win his Senate seats. But before he could seal the deal, the DSCC sat Carson down for a talk and pressured him into hiring Murphy Putnam Media, a politically connected D.C. firm. It was an eye-opening experience for Carson:
"That's the thing you'll learn about any consultant at the top level. They're above you in the food chain," said Carson. "You have to negotiate about what you do in your commercials. They call up the DSCC and complain if you're not doing the 'right thing.' They're a source of intelligence to people back in D.C. And these guys are all powerful people, prominent people. They aren't even working for you. It's an amazing thing in a lot of ways, really amazing." Carson lost the election 53 to 41 to Tom Coburn.
Perhaps Carson should have used Eichenbaum:

"Money ... can’t buy you a movement," Jones writes. Nor could the tens of millions raised last year by David Brock, the former right-wing hit man behind Democrat-friendly American Bridge and Media Matters, Cockburn notes. Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and an Ellison supporter, was banging her head against the wall over Brock's plans for the future. "David Brock’s organization got seventy-five million dollars last year!" she exclaimed. "What did he do with that money? You could have given a million dollars to each of the state parties." But it pays the bills for a lot of frat brothers.