Why Gyrocopter Guy Risked All for Campaign Finance Reform

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I’ve got to tip my hat to gyrocopter pilot Doug Hughes. The postal worker risked his life, his job, and jail because he was so concerned about his democracy. His gutsy, creative ploy accomplished what so many professional activists fail to do on a daily basis: get the country to pay attention.

And yet, of all the issues worth risking everything for, this one was campaign finance reform? Really?

The issue has long attracted the passionately eccentric; before Hughes, there was “Granny D,” the 90-year-old who walked 3,200 miles in service to the campaign finance cause. And that was in the late 1990s, a decade before the Citizens United ruling. Since the Supreme Court declared that corporate campaign cash is covered by the First Amendment, anxiety on the left has skyrocketed. Campaign finance reform has become the left’s white whale.

In a video interview conducted by the Tampa Bay Times before the flight, Hughes summed up liberal conventional wisdom for prioritizing campaign finance: “There are these problems and these problems and these problems that are much more important than campaign finance reform. But those won’t get addressed until we fix campaign finance reform.”

Silver bullet solutions are always seductive. Just eliminate money from politics and – presto! – legislation that junks fossil fuel subsidies, breaks up the big banks and eliminates corporate tax shelters glides through Congress.

But the left is mistaken. Liberal goals have been advanced despite the prevalence of corporate donations, and sometimes because of them.

Theodore Roosevelt was elected for a full term in 1904 after being bankrolled by a small group of wealthy industrialists. Or as a California newspaper, the San Francisco Call, put it in 1912, “Wall Street Favored Roosevelt, Admits Monster 1904 Slush Fund.”

Late 19th railroad magnate Edward Harriman, for another example, was an early “bundler” of campaign cash. Harriman raised $260,000 with what become known as the “Harriman Fund.” Standard Oil’s John Archbold ponied up $100,000. (Roosevelt tried to cover up the Standard Oil cash, sending a letter saying the donation would be returned. But he had already been informed the money was spent.)

How did Roosevelt repay his benefactors? By enacting landmark railroad regulation and suing – successfully – to bust up Standard Oil. As steel baron and Roosevelt donor Henry Frick famously said, “We bought the son of a bitch, but he wouldn’t stay bought.” It’s a telling quote, a reminder that a politician is capable of acting against the interests of his or her donors.

Our next Roosevelt followed a similar path. One-quarter of Franklin D.’s major donors in 1932 hailed from Wall Street. Yet the new president turned around and pushed for establishing the Securities and Exchange Commission and signed into law the Glass-Steagall firewall separating commercial and investment banking. His Wall Street donations dried up in 1936, prompting one of his backers to create a fundraising innovation that is still with us today: the $100-a-plate dinner.

Fast-forward to today, where we see a similar dynamic. Wall Street gave President Obama and the Democrats $32 million more than Republicans in 2008. Regardless, Democrats went ahead with fresh banking regulations. Wall Street responded by shifting its allegiances, giving Republicans in 2012 $96 million more than Democrats. Like FDR, Obama simply raised money from other sources and won re-election anyway.

This is not to say that money doesn’t give Corporate America a big seat at the table. Obama’s bank reforms were in effect a compromise, holding off populist demands to cap the size of banks and restore Glass-Steagall, which was repealed under President Clinton’s watch. Obama’s health care reform didn’t suffer the tragic fate of past Democratic attempts, thanks in part to massive spending from the pharmaceutical lobby, which received in return considerable influence to shape the law. FDR’s SEC was a bargain struck with moderate elements of Wall Street, eschewing strict statutory requirements in favor of giving regulators flexibility. Teddy Roosevelt’s rail regulations included a concession to the industry, giving the courts the ability to review the rates set by the new regulators.

All of these instances involved contemporary accusations of capitulation to big business by some on the left. (“What we want to know is why you surrendered,” one progressive journalist said to Teddy Roosevelt’s face.)  But yesterday’s unsatisfying compromises become to be seen as historic advances with the passage of time.

The Roosevelts’ liberal legacies occurred in the era before enforcement of campaign finance laws, as the Federal Election Commission wasn’t established until 1974. But those rules didn’t usher in an era of progressive good feelings. Ronald Reagan swept into Washington six years later, pushing deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. It was George W. Bush who signed into law the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which didn’t deter his fundraising or his conservative agenda in the slightest. Moreover, Citizens United didn’t spell doom for Democrats in 2012. The fundraising battle between Obama and Romney was effectively a draw, good enough for Obama to make his case.

Does all this mean that it’s a complete waste of time for the left to fight for campaign finance reform? No. “Organized money,” like any organized faction, can distort the democratic process. To the extent it can be mitigated, all the better. But it can never be eliminated; even if we had a constitutional amendment that guaranteed 100 percent public financing of elections, corporations can and will always spend unlimited funds to lobby, organize and advertise during the legislative process.

All is not lost for the left. The reality of corporate influence simply means liberals need to match it with strong organizing and prepare for the inevitable compromise.

Mitigating moneyed influence of course would help. What is frustrating about Citizens United is that it cuts off any legislative route for mitigation. Various organizations are struggling to get around this roadblock. Mayday PAC tried to elect campaign finance reformers to Congress, but struck out in 2014. Represent.us is gunning for municipal measures to spark national momentum. Wolf PAC wants a constitutional convention. None of these paths is promising.

The best bet for overturning Citizens United and re-opening the door to new legislation is simply having a Democratic president appoint a Supreme Court jurist to replace one of the justices who was in the conservative majority. That involves winning more elections, which brings us full circle: Liberals don’t need to solve the campaign finance issue to organize, win elections, secure legislation, and enact regulations. They’re already doing it.

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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