If you want to appreciate what Barack Obama is up against in 2012, forget about the front man who is his nominal opponent and look instead at the Republican billionaires buying the ammunition for the battles ahead. A representative example is Harold Simmons, an 80-year-old Texan who dumped some $15 million into the campaign before primary season had ended. Reminiscing about 2008, when he bankrolled an ad blitz to tar the Democrats with the former radical Bill Ayers, Simmons told The Wall Street Journal, “If we had run more ads, we could have killed Obama.” It is not a mistake he intends to make a second time. The $15 million Simmons had spent by late February dwarfs the $2.8 million he allotted to the Ayers takedown and the $3 million he contributed to the Swift Boat Veterans demolition of John Kerry four years before that. Imagine the cash that will flow now that the GOP sideshows are over and the president is firmly in Simmons’s crosshairs.
- Frank Rich "Sugar Daddies," New York Magazine Apr 22
...Except that, if you check out the informative graphic attached as a sidebar to Rich's article, Simmons is hardly "representative": His 15.4 million in contributions is second only to Sheldon Adelson's 20 million plus, and the tqo of them are 10-15 times ahead of far more "representative" contributions that range from about 1-2 million, generally. That's not a huge discrepancy (though the dollar figures ought to count for something), but it's indicative Rich's generally bombastic approach to the whole topic. There are prefectly good reasons to be concerned about the role of a small, but significant, number of wealthy contributors to both political parties, but Rich's fashionable hair-raised (or as Lucianne used to put it "dress up over head") screed is more about repeating familiar tropes with little real insight, overstating both the rxtent of the problem and properly identifying its more troubling aspects.
Rich does concede that a number of donors to Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove "Super PAC" that most liberals fixate on most, are secret and that, in part, there are another couple of "anonymous" $10 million donors yet to be identified. Fair enough; but even then, the number of truly "enoromous donors" over five million seems to number roughly less than ten. Moreover, Simmons is also a pretty "representative" example of throwing enormous amounts of money at a problem without seeing much in the way in the way of results. Simmons acknowledges having dumped similarly large sums into the 2008 election, to no particularly good end, and there's no real indication (despite Rich's panting and pointing) that his largesse this year will have any more effect; that doesn't make him "dangerous," that makes him a "patsy" to what I woud call some "unscrupulous" operators promising the moon and delivering a lot less. In just a few sentences, Rich goes a long way towards making Simmons seem like an old man frittering his fortune rather than a political genius - which is not exactly strengenthing Rich's point about fearing these people.
The thing which deserves far more examination than we've made in our society, is that, while "money equals speech" may be the Supreme Court's greatest error, it's not clear that "money equals success" in elections. The 2008 election - along with the two previous ones - are noted for the enormous sums raised, but the outcomes of the last few elections seem less determined by funds than by other factors about when to vote for change and when to affirm the status quo. John Kerry didn't just lose in 2004 over money issues; his failure to inspire voters, even (especially) those in his own party played an enormous role in his loss. Similarly, Obama's fundraising abilities were in many ways a subset of the real qualities that pushed him into the White House: charisma, personal appeal, and the promise of a fresh start. John McCain could have spent a small fortune - and in fact noth he and the GOP did - and still have lost as drmatically as he did.
A lot of this has to do with assumptions about the power of advertising that rarely get properly questioned, challenged or examined in more than a surface way. In a culture where we are bombarded by marketing messages from morning to night, we rarely consider what advertising really moves us to do, why, and how to realistically asses ts reach. We assume, because it is asserted repeatedly, that "negative" advertising on politicians will "ruin" candidates' electoral chances, even when, privately, many of us admit that we find these ads less than useful, often ignore tham, and seek out other, more useful information to make a choice. Yes, that's what separates "informed" voters from a group that probably is more easily swayed; even so, it's hard to know that the enormous sums spent by Crossroads is really buying any kind of real success for conservative ideas or candidates - the successes of 2010 for the GOP, surely, are a lot more about a national mood than a lot of negative ads, however Rove wants to dress up his power as a "mood alterer". Mostly, the millions backing Rove's organization seem meant, mostly, to prop up Rove as a political celebrity whose "power" as a broker is more assumed than proven (a role, I've observed, that traces back to his supposed "genius" in supporting George W. Bush, a similarly dubious proposition).
None of this is to dismiss legitimate concerns about the power of enormous wealth to buy political access, influence electoral outcomes, or suggest that I think "money equals speech" or support the current role of "Super PACs"... but I do think that a lot of the noise about the terror of "all this money" from the left is, well, just noise, mosty meant to try and lmit the actual success of the spending of conservatives, and try and ignore the large spending by groups (say, unions, anyone?) supporting the left. And, as always, I feel compelled to point out that many of these critics ought to clarify their arguments - if this is about simply being personally wealthy (and Rich is not one for distinctions), that's a different issue than the politics of spending said wealth. And as I keep trying to gently say... I think it's probably a waste of time to hate wealth. That's not going to go away. The political ads, hopefully, will.
(Also, much like "Worst Song Ever," I think I may need Ground Rules. But really, I don't hate all of Frank Rich's writing.)