There’s a way of looking at the 2016 presidential election and concluding that liberal reformers have dramatically overstated the danger corporate cash poses to the political system.
The worry normally goes that the candidate who can amass the bigger war-chest will get an unfair advantage at the polls. But Bernie Sanders outspent Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and lost. Donald Trump basically spent no money and cruised to the top of the Republican field. Jeb Bush spent $130 million and could barely get a hug, much less win a state.
So should we reconsider the principle that money from big businesses can buy our elections? Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, Sanders’s only supporter in the Senate during the primary, thinks that the answer is a clear “no.” To Merkley, the stories from the primary are exceptions reflecting special national personalities — not the rule that shows the problem of campaign finance has been overblown.
“It's kind of like in sports: Occasionally the sports team that’s poorly equipped and poorly funded catches the right moment, and they win,” Merkley tells me in an interview. “But most of the time, the team that has the better gym for training, the better recruiters, that pays for the best players — most of the time that side is going to dominate.”
For Merkley, this has been something of a slow-moving crisis since the Supreme Court in 2010 essentially legalized secret corporate campaign contributions. He and a handful of other Democrats voted against a deal to avert a government shutdown last week, citing the need to first act on campaign finance. They lost badly.
Shortly after that vote in late September sent Congress into recess, I asked Merkley why he thinks this was a battle worth fighting, how dark money has changed US politics, and whether the Democratic leadership could have fought harder to get Republicans to cave.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Is fighting for campaign disclosures worth shutting down the government?
You were one of just a few Democratic senators who voted against the continuing resolution (to fund the government), and at the press conference I was at yesterday you mentioned it was because of the SEC policy rider that will allow corporations to not have to disclose their campaign contributions.
Why is this so important that it’s worth it to vote no on this big spending bill?
To me, the role of money in campaigns has become a factor changing the entire vision of our constitutional government, which was laid out in the first three words, “We the people.” It was supposed to be the opposite of the European system, where the privileged and the powerful call the shots for themselves.
We are losing that vision. When you have an economy that produces enormous inequality — when those at the top can use their enormous advantage in wealth to buy elections and to purchase a stadium sound system to drawn out the voice of the people.
Right now, in Ohio, there’s around $40 million of outside money flowing in to brand the Democratic candidate, Ted Strickland. And you can’t get enough small donations to counter that kind of outside power. It's very destructive.
So here we have the owners of companies not even getting to know how their money is spent on political activity. It's only right that if someone is spending your money on political activity, you should know what they're doing. The shareholders don’t even get know how their own speech is being used.
So there’s this argument that’s gained currency among some liberals — that the role of outside money in politics is pretty overstated, and that this primary campaign was a pretty good demonstration of that.
After all, Bernie Sanders outspent Hillary Clinton and lost. Donald Trump didn’t spend any money in the primary and came out way ahead. Jeb Bush spent millions and millions of dollars and got, like, 10 votes.
Do you find that perspective at all persuasive?
I don’t buy it at all. You will see exceptions — like in the mayors’ race in Portland a few years ago, a council member named Jim Francisco, who had all the money, lost to a former police chief who was beloved by the community but didn’t spend anything. There will be those exceptional circumstances, where a grassroots candidate catches fire.
But most of the time, it's kind of like in sports: Occasionally the sports team that’s poorly equipped and poorly funded catches the right moment, and they win. But most of the time, the team that has the better gym for training, the better recruiters, that pays for the best players — most of the time that side is going to dominate. So there will be exceptions, but the exceptions won’t happen often enough. Money continues to dominate our political system.
Persuading Congress to take on dark money campaign contributions
I wanted to get your sense of how hard it would be to get Republicans in Congress to accept this limitation on money in politics.
Some media accounts have suggested the real locus of the opposition is with (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell. Forgetting him for a second, where do you feel like most of your colleagues on the other side of the aisle stand on this issue?
Not so long ago, there were a lot of Republicans who supported disclosure — they said, “I can’t support limits on spending, but I absolutely agree on disclosure.” They did support the idea that, “Sunshine is the disinfectant of the political process.” That was pre-Citizens United — and before they were in the majority.
Now, though, they’ve adopted a different line of attack. They’ve completely abandoned support for disclosure. A different line of attack they now have is that it would be improper for corporations to be required to disclose [their campaign contributions], because they might face retaliation for their political choices. So the idea is we're now defending them from the consequences of their speech.
Should Democrats have fought harder to get Republicans to fold on campaign finance disclosures?
Do you feel like the leadership of the Democratic Senate pushed hard enough to get McConnell to fold on this issue?
For a moment there, it looked like they weren’t going to go along until they were promised to let the SEC do its job. Do you think they could’ve come away with a win here?
I'm not going to second guess what the leadership negotiated, because I wasn’t in the room. There are things you're fighting for, and you don’t always get everything you want. We got pretty much everything we wanted — on Zika and Planned Parenthood, and a portion of what we wanted on Flint.
We got nothing at all on this. But we will come back to this battle time and time again. And if we lose this … Do you remember we had 59 D’s and they all voted for disclosure of donations and we couldn't get one Republican? [Note: Republicans blocked the DISCLOSE Act, which was designed to reveal special interest spending, in 2010 and 2012 — JS.]
That’s a pivotal moment, potentially, in American history. We could have seized the path of disclosure, and we failed by one vote — twice! And that could be the foundation for a whole lot of secret dark money flowing into our campaigns.
I wish we had won that vote. I certainly think this issue — we can’t talk about it without noting that the reason we’ve lost is because the Republicans are terrified of the “we the people” philosophy of our Constitution.
Just to stick on the question about the Democratic leadership: During the primary, Bernie Sanders had a very specific idea about why it was so important for Democrats to not rely on big money donors.
His argument was that you don’t regulate the big banks and the big donors that are funding your campaign and that are essential to your ability to fundraise personally. The idea was that Democrats would be less likely to push for real reform on corporate cash if they were tied to it. I was wondering: a) Do you agree with that; and b) Does it make it harder for the Democratic Party leadership to make this a hill they’re willing to die on?
Hm, well. There is a whole lot in what you just said. [Laughs.]
Let me put it this way: What I struggle with, and what many of my colleagues struggle with, is we have Senate rules that we believe should be changed. But until they are changed, how much unilateral advantage do we give to Republicans? If we were all to say simultaneously — we're not taking any Super PAC money or donations from dark money sources or gifts over $500 — would we all be able to thrive? Or is there really only enough attention in the grassroots to really power a few campaigns? And would the Republicans therefore dominate?
The fear is this. We can build a massive movement around some charismatic individuals, and we certainly admire those who can do it — in [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth [Warren], in Bernie [Sanders]. But will we ever have a chance of gaining control of the Senate if all of us all stop at once?
I work like crazy to have small-dollar donations and as big an email list as we can possibly get. But I’m not sure we could win 51 or a sizable majority if we abandoned the calls for fundraising to the Republicans.
I know you have to go, but one of the reasons I think this is such an important story is because it raises the prospect that a Clinton administration with a Democratic Senate may be willing to make compromises on this issue to advance other priorities.
Given what happened in the primary, does this incident raise this concern for you at all?
There is a real sense in the caucus that this is an issue for the Democrats, and whether the agenda we care about can be advanced, and whether we can turn our country around. But it’s going to take everyone continuing to highlight and focus on this major problem.