Monday, March 5, 2007

Sirota and the "scandal" of small money

David Sirota notes the latest bit of trumped-up outrage put in circulation by those whose own behavior is far worse:
The Hotline, the uber-insider journal of Beltway conventional thought, claims today to have a scandalous scoop of “opposition” research on Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D). Are you ready for this? There’s a YouTube video of Obama asking a working class crowd in Cleveland for - gasp! - small campaign contributions. Obama, the Hotline breathlessly recounts, dares to ask “everybody here to pony up five dollars, ten dollars for this campaign. I don’t care how poor you are, you’ve got five dollars.”

Is Obama guilt-tripping the poor? After all, five dollars to the poor is a lot more than five thousand dollars is to the wealthy. How dare he!

And so on.

Now strictly speaking, Hotline is not calling it a scandal, they're offering it up to their readers as oppo--a different animal.

Oppo research is not a tool of enlightened discussion (which, by comparison, calling something a 'scandal' almost is, reminiscent as it is of the tasteful charm of a Restoration comedy of manners); it's not an exercise in subtlety. It's all about finding something smelly and sticky you can throw at the other person, regardless of facts, logic, or consistency, and hoping that at minimum they'll lose precious time and momentum while they try to unstick it (and while you wait with the next bit of oppo cradled lovingly in your hand behind your back, like a muddy snowball).

Oppo research appreciates a juicy, splattery, gossipy scandal, of course, but its bread and butter is locating positions, the more obscure the better, that have changed over time (even over decades) or the long-unnoticed quote or action which, when stripped out of historical context, paints the opponent as hypocritical, extremist, the tool of extremists, etc.

(For example: Hillary's senior thesis at Wellesley about activist/radical/provocateur/hellraiser Saul Alinsky has long been the holy grail of Hillary Conspiracy Theorists, is now available for reading at her alma mater.

And what could be more obscure than a decades-old thesis? Trust me on this one.

Expect Candidate Clinton to have to expend at least some time and trouble in the next year arguing against memes-in-the-making like this:
[Chris] Lacivita co-produced the "Swift Boat" ads in the 2004 presidential race questioning Democratic Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam service. He told that no fact from a candidate's life is too old for negative advertising.

"I think the last election cycle proved that there's no statute of limitations," said the Republican political consultant. "What someone did or said 35 years ago is certainly fair game, especially if you're running for president of the United States.

"I have not read her research paper. Though I can assure you that I will very soon," Lacivita added with a laugh.

He began to brainstorm what such an ad might look like:

"You have to make it relevant to world events today.

"Maybe you look at the contrast. What year did Hillary write this paper? 1969.

"And where was John McCain in 1969? A POW in Vietnam."

A total non sequitur--linking one person's undergraduate thesis topic with another, unrelated person's war experience, the only connection being that they happened in the same year, almost 40 years ago. Might as well have linked her thesis topic with the total tonnage of pig iron produced in Great Britain that year. But attack ads, whisper campaigns, and swiftboating do not build on what is logically rigorous, and only coincidentally at best on what is true. They build on what sticks, however temporarily.

Lacivita, of course, is Satan's spawn. But like many of the radical right's tools, oppo research-based attacks are potentially quite effective--only providing you're unprincipled enough to use them. Come to that, it slightly boggles the mind to realize that I myself, having published about Alinsky in the past, could risk being tarred with the same right-wing oppo brush if I were to stick my head above ground in the coming months as a presidential candidate with a multi-million dollar warchest and 100% name recognition. But I digress.)

I quibble with Sirota about that one fiddly little detail, but I'm certainly in agreement with his overall point:
The real scandal, of course, is the shock that emanates from the Beltway when a major political candidate has the audacity to ask regular people to be a big part of a presidential campaign. Washington would like us to believe that there is only one way to run campaigns these days: by getting a bunch of corporate lobbyists from D.C. and a few super-rich people from New York and Hollywood into a few ballrooms to bundle tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. It's government of, by and for Big Money - a Smokybackroom-ocracy - and any other model is seen as a big scandal. If you are wondering why so many politicians sound like Halliburton press flacks or ExxonMobil PR representatives, and why the entire political debate could be dominated by the comments of a Hollywood billionaire to the New York Times' glorified gossip columnist, look no further: it's because of this innately corrupt model, and the media's glorification of it.

But there is another model that very few people talk about - the one where lots of working people give lots of small dollar contributions. People like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) have been doing this for years. Howard Dean did it in his presidential primary run. It's a much harder path, of course, because it's much harder to organize lots of people than it is to organize a few wealthy fat cats. But in the absence of public financing of elections, campaigns that try to rely on lots of little contributions are the next closest thing to a small-d democratic election system.

We can add Portland mayor Tom Potter to the list of those who made it into office on small contributions, and Portland to the list of places where public financing of elections is at least getting a road test.

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