Here’s a great idea for 2016: The Republican presidential nominee should be required to wear an arm patch adorned with a picture of the Koch brothers. He should have it sewn onto his suit, like the way tennis players advertise corporate sponsors on their sleeves.
Either that, or the GOP could simply change its party symbol. Dump the elephant and adopt the dollar sign. That’s the best way to honor those two plutocrats, who revealed this week that they plan to raise and spend nearly $1 billion during the 2016 election cycle – outpacing the money that will be raised and spent by the official Republican campaign committees.
If democracy is truly for sale these days to the highest bidder – as it indeed is, thanks to the John Roberts majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which functions as the judicial arm of the one-percenters – then it’s quite clear that the Koch brothers do not intend to be outbid. Such is life not in a democracy (an increasingly quaint term), but in a plutocracy.
No wonder the average citizen thinks the game is rigged in favor of the rich. It is, now more than ever.
Thanks to a series of rulings from the high court’s Republican appointees – most notably, five years ago this month, Citizens United – money is deemed to be speech, and the more money you have, the more speech you deserve. The court unleashed the purchasing power of the fat cats, corporations, and special interest groups (including labor, which can’t compete with the fat cats and corporations), and that has now inspired the Koch brothers to become more openly brazen than ever.
At the Kochs’ weekend retreat, where some of the ’16 GOP hopefuls came to kiss the ring, the two scions, who are personally worth $40 billion apiece, laid bare their political blueprint. They plan to collect seven-figure contributions from their network of uber-rich friends – via the Koch organization that’s comically called Freedom Partners – and to kick in an undetermined amount of their own pocket change, until the tally totals $889 million. (Don’t you wish you had that level of Freedom?)
And Koch cronies can keep their identities secret. They can funnel their money to the Koch network of nonprofits that are allowed to collect “dark” money – thanks to loopholes in the tax laws. When the high court’s Republican appointees opened the floodgates in Citizens United, they assumed that the process would be transparent – “prompt disclosure (will) provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable” – but that’s not how it works in the real world.
Not all Republicans embrace this concept of Freedom. First prize for candor goes to Mark McKinnon, a longtime strategist who worked for George W. Bush: “For that kind of money, you could buy a president. Oh, right. That’s the point.” But Republican skeptics prefer to fret off the record; they’re worried that the Koch brand and trickle-down Koch ideology could complicate the party’s nascent ’16 efforts to woo voters in all income brackets.
We shouldn’t necessarily assume, however, that Koch cash equals victory. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2012. For those federal elections, the Koch network ponied up around $400 million (which already looks like chump change), but got virtually nothing for its investment. Mitt Romney was decisively beaten – he lost 11 of 12 swing states – and the Republicans failed to take the Senate.
If Hillary Clinton runs as expected in ’16, she and her allies probably won’t be able to match the Koch largesse, but she’ll easily have enough to compete. Plus, the fight for the Senate will favor blue states. And during the primary season, all the Koch money in the world might not be enough to stop the Republican clown car. And if Obama’s economy continues to jell as expected, voters who are feeling good about the future might simply ignore the Koch-financed saturation advertising.
Still. The Kochs and their friends are prepared to lavishly flex their Freedom because they know that big money buys a big megaphone. Political scientist Darrell West rightly says that “during a time of rising campaign costs and limited public engagement in the political process, big money sets the agenda, affects how the campaign develops, and shapes how particular people and policy problems get defined.”
Sets the agenda. Shapes how policies get defined. That’s alone is money well spent. Rest assured that during the next two years, we’ll hear a lot more claptrap about how climate change is a crock, simply because the Koch fossil-fuel magnates say it’s a crock.
And rest assured that if the Republicans were to win the White House in ’16, the Kochs and their friends will expect to get a hefty return on their investment. That’s the business of plutocracy.
Which reminds of a remark that the late Senator Russell Long uttered a generation ago, when the rich were at least nominally reined in by campaign finance reform: “The distinction between a large campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference.”
And in our era of legalized bribery, that hairline continues to recede.