During the past week, the Obama administration has been trying to whip up its Democratic base – and, ideally, independent voters – by suggesting that pro-Republican business groups are pumping mammoth amounts of foreign corporate money into the midterm campaigns. As Obama himself claimed last Thursday, referring specifically to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections.”
Consider me underwhelmed. This issue is a lame dog that won’t hunt. The population of voters swayed by this issue could probably fit in a service elevator.
For starters, let’s revisit a telling weekend exchange between CBS News vet Bob Schieffer and Obama lieutenant David Axelrod. It was not Axelrod’s finest moment.
Schieffer opened his key question by referencing a New York Times story that moved online two nights earlier: “The New York Times looked into the Chamber specifically, and said the Chamber really isn’t putting foreign money into the campaign. That it does charge its foreign affiliates dues that bring in less than $100,000 a year. A lot of organizations, including labor unions, (also) do that. But the Chamber has an annual budget of $200 million, and it says it keeps these foreign dues separate (as required by law). They do spend heavily in politics, $25 million so far. They expect to spend $50 million.
“But this part about foreign money, that appears to be peanuts, Mr. Axelrod, I mean, do you have any evidence that it’s anything other than peanuts?”
Axelrod’s initial retort: “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?”
Oh, man. That response was downright cringeworthy. Axelrod basically admitted that the White House has no hard evidence that foreign money is flooding into our midterm campaigns; as he put it moments later, “Well, I don’t know. No one knows, Bob.” And therefore, in his words, “I can make any assertion I want.” Hence the Democratic National Committee’s weekend TV ad which asserts: “It appears that (pro-GOP groups) have even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections.”
Factual reality requires evidence. Axelrod and the Democrats don’t have any. The Times story stated that it didn’t have any, either: “There is little evidence that what the Chamber does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents.” Note the bipartisan attribution.
The story also pointed out that liberal groups, such as the ACLU and the Sierra Club, have international affiliates and routinely collect money from those foreign entities while also lobbying for their favorite domestic issues. Similarly (although the Times didn’t mention this example), the fast-growing Service Employees International Union collects money from foreign nationals while flexing considerable domestic political clout.
Federal law does require that all foreign money should be kept segregated from the domestic money, to ensure that foreigners won’t bankroll any domestic political activity. By all accounts, the Chamber polices itself just like the SEIU does. The key quote in the Times story was supplied by Richard Hasen, a nonpartisan election-law specialist whom I’ve long respected. In his words, “I’ve seen no proof of the Chamber funneling a penny of foreign money into U.S. elections.”
And Obama has no proof – which is why he omitted the foreign-money theme when he stumped in Philadelphia on Sunday. But here’s my bottom line: Even if the White House did have evidence of serious overseas money infecting our autumn political dialogue, this issue would still be a dog.
I used to write a lot about money in politics, especially when campaign finance reform was supposedly a hot issue. But the issue has never ranked high in the list of voter concerns. For one thing, the specifics are highly technical. And even though Americans generally bemoan the big bucks that dominate the process, they also assume that the money is eternal, that reform will merely redirect the flow into new tributaries.
Then factor in the political mood of 2010. People are fixated on the economy, and worried about the future. When Obama complains about the high level of corporate campaign spending and the specter of foreign money, it sounds like he’s trying to change the subject. This issue is an abstract distraction, a dog that needs to be put to sleep.
Which brings us back to Bob Schieffer. One of his questions put it best.
He said to Axelrod: “If the only charge, three weeks (from) the election, that the Democrats can make is that there…may or may not be foreign money coming into the campaign, is that the best you can do?”