The Resistance Will Be … Underwritten By Corporations

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/donald-trump-resistance-democrats-corporations-214888

Late last month, a few hours before the Democratic National Committee elected Tom Perez as chair, party officials held a vote on whether to accept donations from corporate political action committees. The debate was not conducted in the backroom, but in front of C-Span cameras. And Democrats, loudly and proudly, chose to accept corporate cash. On the floor, California’s Bob Mulholland, after conceding, “I’m not a member of Mother Teresa’s sisters’ organization. I am a member of the Democratic Party” swam against the populist tide: “All those corporations in North Carolina, who stood up for the Democratic Party platform against the law there to try to outlaw or discriminate against transgender [people], why should the Democratic Party say now, ‘Hey, great what you did, but we’re not gonna take your contributions?’” Charles Stormont of Utah contended Democrats can safely accept money from corporations “as long as they understand I will treat them no differently because of it” while warning, “We can not afford not to take corporate money, or we disappear.”The optics may be lousy, but the DNC made the right call. To maximize resistance to Donald Trump, Democrats need to win as many 2018 midterm election races as possible. And they can’t do it on $27 checks alone.Of course, that’s not how the progressive populists see it. After watching Bernie Sanders raise millions for his presidential bid with small donations, and watching Hillary Clinton get skewered for her Wall Street ties, they are convinced the party is worse off with corporate cash. Jon Gardzelewski, a new DNC member from Wyoming, said on the floor, “This last election cycle, there was a fire lit under the voters of the American people [who] supported a message to get money out of politics … We’re going to need them … We need the votes a lot more than we need a little bit of corporate money.”Outside the hotel ballroom where the DNC vote took place, Sanders fans cringed, but gleefully seized the opportunity to bash the party leadership. Justice Democrats, a group founded by former Republican-turned-leftist YouTube star Cenk Uygur to encourage primary challenges of “Establishment” Democrats, tweeted, “With its rubber stamp on corporate lobbying, Dems just doubled down on the strategy that lost party 1000+ seats over last 8 years.”What the populist camp desperately wants is a Democratic Party fully funded by small donors and purified of corporate influence. That’s what Rep. Keith Ellison suggested he would pursue during his campaign for chair. In his final pitch before the vote, he declared, “We’re going to raise the money that we need from small donor donations … we got to go to the grassroots.” But even Ellison left the door open to accepting donations from corporate lobbyists, saying in January that he was supportive of a ban but would put the matter to a vote by the DNC. (The resolution voted down by the DNC regarded donations from corporate PACs, but was silent on corporate lobbyists.)Perez was more agnostic than Ellison. In a December interview with the Huffington Post, he expressed interest in increasing small-donor donations, but when asked about banning lobbyist donations, he avoided a direct answer: “I think we have to have everything on the table. We have to have a conversation … If we’re gonna carry out this 50-state strategy, how do we move forward and how do we raise the money to get there?’”This is the crux of the matter. While nearly everyone across the Democratic spectrum says the party should have a 50-state strategy to reverse its massive down-ballot losses this decade, not everyone fully grasps what that means in practice. For example, The Nation’s John Nichols attributed Ellison’s defeat to “the refusal of insider Democrats to recognize that their party must get out of Washington (with a genuine 50-state strategy) [and] break the bonds of big money (with small-donor funding).” But those two goals are in conflict, for expanding the map and contesting more races costs more money.How much more money? Consider the cost of the last midterm election in 2014. The dollar figures were staggering.Both parties (including money from party-allied independent groups) combined spent $3.77 billion in 435 U.S. House and 36 Senate campaigns. Another $2.2 billion was raised at the state level, including candidates in 36 gubernatorial and more than 6,000 state legislative races, with additional $284 million coming from outside groups. Total midterm election cost: approximately $6.25 billion, with at least $2.7 billion spent by Democrats.Money can’t be blamed for all of that year’s Democratic losses up and down the ballot, as Republicans had only a very slight fundraising edge in the federal races. But state races were a different story. Among gubernatorial candidates, Republicans trounced Democrats $493.7 to $357.7 million. And Republican state legislative candidates topped their Democratic rivals $487.1 to $438.2 million. (The GOP’s state legislative edge was partly due to its larger roster of candidates: 4,845 to 4,665. But that speaks to a Democratic weakness in candidate recruitment, which is exacerbated by its comparatively weaker fundraising.)The lower down you go on the ballot, the more major donors matter, because there is less free media available to level the playing field and attract small donors. In 2014, 82 percent of the U.S. Senate winners were the candidates that spent the most, compared to a near-perfect 94 percent of U.S. House winners.Populists like to point to what Sanders did in 2016 as proof of what’s possible with small donors, but arguably what his campaign revealed is the limits of that model. No doubt his fundraising efforts were impressive, raising $231 million from 2.7 million donors. That was enough to outspend his Wall Street-connected rival by a hair. But it’s nowhere near the billions Democrats need to compete in every state, county and precinct. Bernie’s small donors were moved to click donate buttons on emails more on behalf of a gruffly charismatic candidate than for a party machine trying to fund thousands of plain-vanilla candidates in down ballot races.The party can try to deploy its most popular members to lead the small donor midterm drive, which it did in 2014 by having Sen. Elizabeth Warren lead the charge for congressional fundraising. The result? A roughly similar amount to Bernie’s total — $205 million – was raised from small donors, though the number of donors was far fewer than in Sanders’ army, and the dollar total amounted to just 28 percent of the Democratic haul.These numbers don’t necessarily represent a ceiling, and Democrats absolutely should work overtime to make their small donor base as big as possible. (Perez and Ellison, who was named deputy chair as consolation, have reportedly prioritized “an innovative, small-dollar digital fundraising effort” to begin their DNC tenure.) A small donor doesn’t only offer dollars, but time and energy to phone bank, pound pavement and get out the vote in their neighborhoods. But just as Democrats can’t maximize their strength without small donors, nor can they without big donors.For populist progressives to live in a big tent with a bunch of plutocrats may feel like a bridge too far. Ever since the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United ruling in 2010, and gave First Amendment protection to corporate campaign cash, the left has treated Big Money as the biggest threat to its policy goals and to democracy itself.But once you take a step back, you can see that corporate money is not the chief impediment to a progressive future. Citizens United didn’t stop Obama’s re-election. It didn’t cause the Democratic loss of the Senate in 2014, as both parties were roughly even on funds. And it didn’t elect Trump; who was wildly outspent by a Democrat with plenty of CEO support.Furthermore, the parts of the Trump agenda that most disgust the left are not supported by Big Money. Most corporations do not have an interest in a border wall, mass deportations, a refugee ban, discrimination against the transgendered or the denigration of the free press. The business community likes Trump’s deregulatory zeal, but it’s divided over his border tax and trade war musings. The health insurance industry is nervous that repeal of the Affordable Care Act will cause market chaos, and the loss of the individual mandate will rob them of customers.Building the broadest resistance possible means including those business leaders who are horrified by Trump’s crude nationalism and consider him a threat to global stability. Fighting Citizens United is fighting the last war.Forging a big donor-small donor coalition is hardly unprecedented; it’s what the Democratic Party has done for decades. Obama had four million small donors in 2008, but 66 percent of his money came from larger donors and 20 percent came from Wall Street. Obama’s Wall Street take was a tick smaller than Franklin Roosevelt’s 25 percent in 1932. Woodrow Wilson was a small-donor pioneer in 1912, but also had ample Wall Street backing. The trust-busting progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt also had a “monster 1904 slush fund” from Wall Street sources. All of these liberal icons did not hesitate to regulate corporations in office despite their funding sources, so there’s no reason to assume the taking of corporate money will cause a deathblow to the progressive agenda.The close vote for DNC chair did not help resolve the ideological divides wracking the Democratic Party and the progressive community. Some on the losing side are calling on Perez to prove his commitment to a more democratized Democratic Party by working closely with his new deputy; Nichols cautiously praised, “There’s potential in that arrangement—if it really is a partnership, and if Perez implements the ‘dramatic cultural change’ he promises.” More strident voices saw the vote as proof that the DNC should be treated as an adversary. Commentator Matt Bruenig counseled those on “the left” that “if they engage with the Democratic party at all, only do so in order to attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions.”But Ellison appears to grasp that grassroots organizing can happen alongside corporate schmoozing. When he introduced Perez at a post-election event, Ellison said, “Tom’s going to be leading us not just in the suites, but in the streets.” Implicit in that message is that the suites are just as important as the streets to the viability of The Resistance.

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