The Washington Post contradicted itself dramatically today, in a way that will feed every Republican and conservative claim about the mainstream media’s liberal bias. The Post’s editorial about the “$150 Million Man,” in reference to Barack Obama’s spectacular September fundraising results, treated Barack Obama as the people’s tribune, floating toward his record-breaking $600 million total on a sea of small contributions. “Much of Mr. Obama's money has arrived in small donations,” the editorial said…. Mr. Obama's haul reflects the enormous enthusiasm his campaign has generated.” Yet, on the front page of the same edition of the same newspaper, readers discovered that “Big Donors Drive Obama’s Money Edge.” The Post’s analysis of the Obama’s campaign fundraising records showed that “it was far more than just a surge of Internet donors that fueled a coordinated Democratic effort to try to swamp McCain.” Even so, while reporting on the “ultra-rich Democratic donors,” the paper emphasized Obama’s broad base of support and claimed that the money was mostly to advance the cause of grassroots politics, saying it “will support ground operations in 18 states, including all the key battlegrounds.”
By contrast, consider the reporting four years ago about President George W. Bush’s prodigious fundraising efforts. “Pioneers Fill War Chest, then Capitalize,” a typical headline claimed. This money was raised by an “elite cadre” of supporters, readers learned, with far more nefarious motives than their Democratic successors. The Republican efforts were “fueled by the desire of corporate CEOs, Wall Street financial leaders, Washington lobbyists and Republican officials to outdo each other in demonstrating their support for Bush and his administration's pro-business policies.”
The message here seems clear. Obama’s fundraising is part of a romantic, heroic effort representing the people’s will; Bush’s fundraising was part of a manipulative, underhanded attempt subverting the people’s will. This distinction paralleled Hillary Clinton’s defense in the 1990s, when she was charged with profiteering on the commodities market – she did it for her daughter Chelsea’s college tuition. There, the parallel message was that Democrats speculate for their children’s education, Republicans do it for greed.
These caricatures work because they resonate, reinforcing other story lines. For months reporters have celebrated Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign as a people’s crusade. And for decades now reporters have been lambasting the Republican Party as the party of the plutocrats. Moreover, these story lines are rooted in truth. Even if mega-donors have fueled much of the fundraising, Obama has attracted a record number of smaller donors, on-line and off, many of them first-time givers. And claiming that the Republican Party is extremely pro-business is no more controversial than noting that Hollywood is extremely pro-liberal.
The resonance of these stereotypes is what I call the O-Ring factor, recalling the first Space Shuttle Explosion. After the Challenger exploded in 1986, the brilliant scientist Richard Feynman proved that an unseasonal Florida frost hit the shuttle’s connecting rubber O-Rings in such a way as to make the entire spaceship vulnerable. Certain candidacies are more susceptible to certain attacks than others. Storylines resonate based on different candidate’s weakness. The story that the New York Times ran this spring about John McCain’s friendship with a woman lobbyist had little traction. Had a similar story run about Bill Clinton in his heyday, it would have resonated more broadly, because of Bill Clinton’s reputation as a ladies man.
The story of Barack Obama’s record-breaking fundraising has been played as one more chapter in the legend of his rise, rather than an indicator of anyone owning him or expecting payback. But as the Washington Post editorial suggested, Obama’s haul – and his renunciation of federal financing – highlight the problems of the current campaign finance system. Politicians spend too much time and make too many promises fundraising. But it is unrealistic to expect that money would not be a major player in our system. Money is power, and the marriage between business people and politicians is too compelling. Limits will not work; full disclosure might. Let us trust the maturity of the people and the effectiveness of the internet. Keeping the process clean entails keeping it open. Beyond that, as so many election lawyers like to say, keeping money out of the campaign is like keeping water out of your basement. Whatever defenses we build, we cannot fight the inevitable. Better to accept it and work with the reality than to resist it and lose.
P.S. The revelations about Sarah Palin's $150,000 wardrobe come from campaign finance disclosures -- proof that having everything open to the public can serve as a valuable check on the follies and excesses of our politicians.