Bad Timing

The Left picks the wrong month to discover the value of money


Say you've spent years crusading against the role of money in politics, all in the face of a judiciary that insists your program would injure freedom of speech. Finally, just as you decide that political cash might do the body politic some good, the Supreme Court embraces the arguments you spent all that time advancing. As ironic endings go, it's not exactly O. Henry material. But it's not bad for the gray columns of The New York Times.

The disappointed crusaders, of course, are the left wing of the Democrats—the folks who bristled when Clintonian centrists took over their party but haven't been willing to light out permanently for Greener territories. Over the last two months, these activists have witnessed the following:

• In early November Howard Dean, the self-proclaimed candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," declared that his campaign would not accept matching funds from the federal government, thus avoiding the spending limits that come attached to Washington's dough. The decision was precipitated by an unprecedented flood of donations to Dean via the Internet—$14.8 million in the three months prior to his announcement.

• Later that month, zillionaire speculator George Soros announced that halting Bush's reign is now "the central focus" of his life. He has pledged at least $15.5 million to removing the president at the polls.

• In December MoveOn, a pro-Democrat group partly funded by Soros, spent $1.9 million on a two-week onslaught of anti-Bush ads in five swing states. Sarah Ferguson of The Village Voice reports that the group "is also encouraging its members to make their own attack ads with a 'Bush in 30-seconds' ad competition, intended to help find the most memorable take on why Bush must go."

• And on December 10, just as MoveOn's ads were about to air, the Supreme Court upheld most of the McCain-Feingold Act, which severely restricts Americans' ability to air political advertisements in the last month before an election, First Amendment bedamned. The law also limits contributions to political parties.

There have always been rich people willing to fund liberal and even radical causes, and the intersection of big money with the left should not come as a surprise. But the drive to depose Bush has spread this appreciation for high finance to formerly skeptical realms. This doesn't mean that every Democrat has changed her mind about the role of money in politics, nor that many who did change don't see such spending as a necessary evil to be abolished once the right people are in charge. But they've still been put in the unfamiliar position of defending the intervention of multimillionaires in public life, while establishment Republicans have found themselves taking the even less sustainable stance that Soros' funds are sinister in a way that Richard Mellon Scaife's are not.

Further left, Dean and Soros and MoveOn are considered barely preferable, if at all, to Bush and Scaife and the RNC. This isn't simply a matter of declaring the moneymen insufficiently radical. It's a product of a more thoroughgoing critique of the role of money in politics—one that regards a sugar daddy as dangerous not merely to his foes but to the recipients of his largess. Sometimes this approach degenerates into silly conspiracy-mongering, wherein the mere decision to take a grant is seen as virtual proof that the awardee is now forever in his benefactor's pocket. But there's a more sophisticated school of thought that sees a difference in the dynamics of a volunteer-based grassroots group and a well-funded professional operation, a distinction magnified as the body's bank account grows. There are things the professionals can do more easily than the volunteers. But there are incentives that come into play when a substantial number of people see their activism as a means to a paycheck as well as, or instead of, a means to a political end.

Two changes in particular deserve to be mentioned. One is a new interest in keeping the organization alive—more bluntly, a newfound spirit of bureaucratic self-perpetuation. The other change, closely related, is the allure of the grant-chasing culture. Both serve to sever a group from the grassroots and their interests, a split most pronounced among the Washington-based lobbies. And both encourage a group to moderate its platform. One needn't engage in conspiracy thinking to recognize that well-heeled foundations have only a finite amount of resources to give away, and that applicants that more closely reflect the grantmakers' agenda are more likely to get a large piece of the pie.

The results are not limited to the left. You can see them on display everywhere from community radio stations to organized religion, from the environmental movement to its Wise Use opponents.

The most corrupting effect of money in politics might be not on the electoral process, where the dissident rich can help finance a Howard Dean or a Eugene McCarthy, but in the sort of activism that sees national elections as a sideshow. There's no campaign finance reform that can change that. But the law we got instead will do a lot of abuse to free speech in the meantime.