Published: May 15, 2011
"Crossroads GPS is responsible for the content of this advertising." That line, tacked on to the end of political ads airing in New York's 26th District, is easy enough to miss. It signals the ad as one of many paid for by the conservative political action committee.
The group, founded by Karl Rove, has been pouring big money into television ads for the Republican candidate in the special election — about $350,000 for a week of airtime. It's a tactic that worked to the advantage of Republicans in 2010. Now Democrats want to get in on the action.
Since leaving the White House last February, former deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton has launched his own political action committees, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. He says he based his PACs largely on Rove's model and hopes to rival the massive spending power of conservative fundraisers like Rove and brothers David and Charles Koch.
Burton aims to give the conservatives a run for their money, he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
Just Playing By The Rules
For the 2012 election, Burton says his group is playing catch up to Rove's $100 million war chest.
"We just couldn't sit by and let things that were important to us, our progressive values and candidates that were important to us, get overrun with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in from right-wing sources," he says.
While some members of his own party say Burton is sinking to the level of his conservative counterparts, Burton says he's just playing by the rules — the new rules.
Thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court last year, outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign contributions. In some cases, they can even do so anonymously. Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case, gave corporations broad new fundraising power — so Burton doesn't have to disclose his donors.
"We're not going to be left in the dust as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers go rolling down the street, spending hundreds of millions of dollars advancing their right-wing agenda while we're overrun with all their money," Burton says.
"A Big Mistake"
Russ Feingold, former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and founder of the grassroots advocacy group Progressives United, is one of Burton's biggest critics. Campaign finance reform was Feingold's trademark issue in the Senate.
"I understand the desire to win and to keep up with the Joneses — or in the case, the Roves," Feingold says, "but I think it's a big mistake."
Feingold says Democrats won't be able to keep up with conservative groups like Burton thinks they can. According to Feingold, corporations will drown his Democrats with money. He says taking cues from the 2008 election is a better strategy — armies of small donors instead of massive corporate money.
"If we just look like we're part of this whole crowd with the oil companies and Wall Street, and corporations looking for tax cuts for the wealthy," Feingold says, "people are going to look somewhere else — or they're going to sit on their hands."
An Executive Call For Disclosure
Feingold might not be happy with Burton's approach, but he might like a new executive order being considered by the White House.
If passed, the order would require federal contractors to disclose their political donations to federal candidates, parties or third parties likely to support or oppose a candidate.
Those third-party groups would include Rove's American Crossroads and Burton's Priorities USA. Requiring disclosure would mean closing off the legal loophole corporations have been using to cover their tracks.
"Anytime there are rules, money — like water — will flow around them," says Ben Heineman, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "This is just a traditional problem of how do you tie them down tight enough so there aren't exceptions."
"Unless you have clear law requiring that there be disclosure," he says, "there's a lot of temptation."
If the order does go through, Heineman says, the White House will have to be ready for tough pushback over the constitutionality of the order. Critics on the right may argue that it's a blow to free speech — as they did in the Citizens United case. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Last fall, on this program, we heard the story of Representative Peter Defazio. He's a Democrat who was running for reelection in Oregon's 4th Congressional District, when one day, he got an urgent phone call about a mysterious campaign ad.
Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): My campaign staff said that there's something new. We don't know what it is or who it's coming from.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Woman #1: Politicians Nancy Pelosi and Peter Defazio made a mess of our economy...
Rep. DEFAZIO: I figured it was one of these new groups that had been formed under Citizens United. And, you know, the ad was very, very sophisticated.
RAZ: Citizens United, of course, was the Supreme Court decision that gave corporations, unions and political action committees the power to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, and in some cases, to do it anonymously.
And that's exactly what was going on in Oregon. A conservative group called Concerned Taxpayers for America, based in Washington, D.C., was running ads against Defazio. And Defazio wasn't able to find out who was behind them or where the money came.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Woman #2: Concerned Taxpayers of America is responsible for the content of this advertising.
RAZ: Now, during that same election season - we're talking about 2010 - another even more powerful conservative group received a lot more attention. It's called Crossroads GPS. It was founded by Karl Rove. And in 2010, it poured tens of millions of dollars into campaign ads that attacked Democrats across the country.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Woman #3: Barbara Boxer voted to cut spending on Medicare benefits by $500 billion.
Unidentified Man #1: Congressman Joe Sestak voted for Obama's big government health care.
Unidentified Man #2: And Jack Conway has gone the wrong way too.
RAZ: You get the idea. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS had a pretty substantial impact on that election. Republicans, of course, retook control of the House.
And so after that election, some Democrats started to ask, why don't we do the same thing? And in recent weeks, they have.
In a special election in New York's 26th Congressional District, liberal groups have started to get in on the act.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Man #3: You've earned it, worked your whole life for it. Jane Corwin supports a budget that essentially ends Medicare.
RAZ: Our cover story today: How 2012 is shaping up as a race between anonymous liberal money and anonymous conservative money.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Man #3: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content...
RAZ: Now, as we mentioned, these ads are now popping up in New York's 26th Congressional District. The seat in that district is up for grabs. It was vacated by Republican Chris Lee, who resigned after he was caught sending shirtless photos of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist.
Now, Republican groups are also pouring money into ads in that district. They're backing their candidate, a woman named Jane Corwin.
Now, for the past year, most Democrats, including the president, have blasted conservatives for setting up these so-called 501(c)(4)s. These are groups that, by law, are supposed to promote social welfare. For example, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, that's a 501(c)(4).
Well, some of those same Democrats are now saying, if you can't beat them, join them.
Mr. BILL BURTON (Former White House Deputy Press Secretary): We just couldn't sit by and let things that were important to us, candidates that were important to us, get overrun with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in from right-wing sources.
RAZ: That's Bill Burton. Up until a few months ago, he was President Obama's deputy White House press secretary. And last month, he set up two political fundraising groups: Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. That second group is a 501(c)(4). And Bill Burton says his inspiration, none other than Karl Rove.
Mr. BURTON: To be clear, our goal is to try to keep pace with Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. We don't think that we'll be able to match them dollar for dollar, but...
Mr. BURTON: Because they'll be pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars trying to advance a right-wing, conservative agenda. No, I don't think that we'll be able to raise every single dollar that they will, but I do think that there are enough progressive Democrats out there who are concerned about their influence that we will be able to raise enough to make a real difference.
RAZ: Russ Feingold, who we'll hear from in a moment, of course, the architect of a major campaign finance reform law in 2002, he says what you're doing is playing with the devil. He says this is wrong, this is unethical, it's not up to the standards of what Democrats do. And you say to him what?
Mr. BURTON: I have deep respect for Senator Feingold, and he's certainly entitled to his opinion. And all the people who are involved in this effort all agree that we need campaign finance reform. But we're not going to play by a different set of rules just for the sake of principle.
RAZ: I mean, the president himself has discouraged Democrats from doing what you're doing. Are your former colleagues at the White House upset with you? Are you persona non grata there? Or are they publicly distancing themselves from you but privately cheering you on?
Mr. BURTON: As you know, we're an independent group. So what we're doing is completely independent of what the White House is doing. I've seen their public comments, which is that the president's position has not changed. And our position on campaign finance reform is the same as well. But the Supreme Court changed the rules.
And we may want the speed limit to be 55, but the Supreme Court said it's going to be 70, and we're not going to be left in the dust as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers go rolling down the street, spending hundreds of millions of dollars advancing their right-wing agenda while we're overrun with all their money.
RAZ: So you're essentially saying you believe the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was bad, but it was decided upon, and we're going to take part in this environment.
Mr. BURTON: To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go into an election with the rules that you have, not the rules that you wish you had. And we're playing by the rules that we have.
RAZ: Now, Bill, you were a - in the press office at the White House. So you said a lot of things on the record. You know that they were going to come back to haunt you (unintelligible).
Mr. BURTON: You should (unintelligible) the things I said off the record.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: OK. Right. You said - this is what you said during the midterm elections. You were quoted saying this about some of these groups: Unless a bright light is shined on the shadowy activity of these outside groups, people aren't going to know the facts, which is that with their complete lack of transparency, Lord knows who's participated in these races.
You're basically running a PAC that doesn't have to disclose donors. I mean, you're doing what you kind of criticized, excoriated.
Mr. BURTON: In fairness, I said it a lot less dramatically than you did just now.
RAZ: I did it dramatically.
Mr. BURTON: But as I said, we support reform. That has not changed.
RAZ: How much money have you raised so far?
Mr. BURTON: We're doing pretty well.
RAZ: You don't have to say it, right, because you don't have to be transparent?
Mr. BURTON: Well, we're going to report as often as the rules say that you do. And that means, you know, each quarter, we'll put out a report that details the expenditures, and we'll make sure that that's public.
RAZ: What would you say to somebody who says, Bill, I hear you, it's really cynical?
Mr. BURTON: I would say that it is a reality that the Supreme Court set up these rules by which we all now exist. And it is an imperfect system. But we're not willing to stand by and let Republicans play by one set of rules while we live up to some double standard that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to get entered into this political season unanswered.
RAZ: Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton. He spoke to me here in our studios in Washington.
Now, as we mentioned, one of the most outspoken critics of what Bill Burton is doing is former Wisconsin Senator Democrat Russ Feingold.
While he was in office, he championed campaign finance reform that would bring more transparency to the process of funding political ads. And he says that Democrats involved with this now are undermining the political process.
Mr. RUSS FEINGOLD (Founder, Progressives United; Former Democratic Senator, Wisconsin): Because if you play this game and play it according to the way corporations want to play it, I don't think it's the right thing to do. I also think it's a good way to make sure we lose our message and lose elections rather than win them. So I think it's a big mistake, and I understand the motivation, but I disagree with it.
RAZ: I mean, you say lose elections, but wouldn't this give Democrats a chance to bolster their election cash flow so that they can keep up with Republicans in 2012?
Mr. FEINGOLD: Yeah, if you really believe elections are determined purely by money, perhaps that's a way to go. But you know what, if this game is going to be based just on money, I don't care what Democrats think they're going to do. There's no way they're going to be able to keep up with these corporate-funded entities. I think it's a really dumb strategy.
RAZ: As you know, many Democrats are saying, yes, we understand what Russ Feingold is saying. We respect him. But he is being naive. That if we played by his standards of ethics, and we wouldn't take advantage of the legally allowed rules, Democrats would be essentially taking a knife to a gunfight.
Mr. FEINGOLD: The naive person is the one who thinks that there will be sufficient money on the Democratic side to counter corporate money, if that's the way you go. That's true naivete. Corporations will be able to drown us with money if that's the only approach we take, and we're going to look just like them.
Now, the problem here is what you're doing is creating something where you're admitting that you're just going to take a whole bunch of corporate money - and by the way, the notion that somehow these people, after they win the election this way, if the Democrats manage to do well in coming years taking corporate money, there's no way they'll change it, because when you win that way, people have a tendency to like the money.
RAZ: If you disagree, obviously, with Bill Burton's group and the philosophy of some of these Democrats like Harold Ickes, who basically want to copy Karl Rove's model, what would you rather see Democrats do to counter some of the money coming into these conservative groups for the 2012 election?
Mr. FEINGOLD: Well, what you have to do is make it one of the main issues in the campaign. Instead of the president and his allies saying, gee, we need a lot of money, too, they should say, you know what, we're the guys that stand against corporate money.
Now, he can couple that with the enormous people power that will support Barack Obama if he stays true to the kind of campaign he had in 2008, which, of course, was according to the law prior to Citizens United. That will be the way to overcome corporate money.
If we just look like we're part of this whole crowd with the oil companies and Wall Street and corporations looking for tax cuts for the wealthy, people are going to look somewhere else, or they're going to sit on their hands.
RAZ: That's former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat. He is the co-author of the 2002 bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and the founder of the grassroots advocacy group Progressives United. He spoke to me from Middleton, Wisconsin.
Russ Feingold, thank you.
Mr. FEINGOLD: Thank you. It was good to be on.
RAZ: Now, contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United did not say anonymous political contributions are a constitutionally protected right. In fact, eight out of the nine justices said that the government could require that donors be named. The problem is that no government agency believes it has the power to enforce that.
Mr. BEN HEINEMAN (Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University): Anytime there are rules, money like water will flow around them. And this is just a traditional problem of how do you tie these kinds of things down tight enough so there aren't exceptions.
RAZ: That's Ben Heineman. He's an expert on corporate campaign donations at the Belfer Center at Harvard. And he explains that the groups operating as 501(c)(4)s are simply taking advantage of the fact that neither the Federal Elections Commission nor the IRS are willing to seriously clamp down on anonymous money in politics.
Mr. HEINEMAN: Unless you have a clear law requiring that there be disclosure, there's a lot of temptation on the part of not all but a high proportion of companies not to disclose their involvement in politics.
RAZ: So the Obama administration is now working on an executive order that would require all corporations that do business with the government to disclose political contributions if they exceed $5,000. And if the president signs it, you can almost certainly expect it to be challenged. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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