Bloomberg is buying another term in office! It’s an outrage!
That’s what lots of my fellow liberals said when billionaire Michael Bloomberg spent $102 million of his own cash – about $174 per vote – to win re-election as New York mayor in 2009. And they were right. Unchecked money turns politics into a corrupt poker game, where the well-to-do get to stack the deck.
So why aren’t these same critics complaining, now that Mr. Bloomberg is showering his millions on candidates who back gun control and same-sex marriage? Because liberals like these causes, of course.
As President Obama heads to Colorado today to praise the state’s newly passed gun-control legislation and push for action in Congress, it’s worth taking a step back to look at the money in the fight. The National Rifle Association spent roughly $25 million – more than twice as much as Bloomberg did – in the 2012 elections. Liberals will argue they’re only trying to even the playing field – to fight fire with fire, using their own loaded benefactor to counter the muscle of the NRA.
But if we are truly opposed to the undue influence of money in politics, we should protest that influence in all cases – no matter who wins. If we only call for limits on campaign spending when our team is losing, then we don’t really believe in those limits at all.
There’s no question Bloomberg’s money has swayed election outcomes. In 2012, he spent more than $3.3 million to unseat Democratic gun-rights supporter Joe Baca in a California state Senate race – roughly three times three times what Mr. Baca spent himself.
Now, Bloomberg has poured about $12 million into his recently established political action committee, Independence USA, to back eight candidates around the country who have progressive platforms, including support for marriage equality, education reform, and especially gun control.
In Illinois, the PAC became a major player in the special election primary race for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s old congressional seat. Bloomberg’s PAC spent more than $2 million to help defeat Democrat Debbie Halvorson, condemning her “A” rating from the NRA.
And last month, Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group launched a $12 million ad campaign to run in 13 states, targeting 15 senators who could be “persuaded” to support gun control legislation, specifically background checks. The targeted lawmakers include Susan Collins (R) of Maine, Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, Joe Donnelly (D) of Indiana, and Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana.
Bloomberg reportedly paid for the entire ad campaign and also funded the “national day of action” on guns that the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group organized for last Thursday. The day drew lavish praise from Mr. Obama and others on the left.
But whereas liberals have blasted the mayor for purchasing his own re-election, they were largely silent about Bloomberg “buying votes” for gun control.
That’s patently inconsistent, and it’s also deeply cynical. Campaign-finance regulation came to America 100 years ago via people who called themselves “Progressives.” So it’s particularly outrageous to see self-described progressives seemingly turning a blind eye to it today, when it suits their purposes to do so.
For the first century of American history, most political campaigns were financed via the spoils system: The winning political party got to hire government employees, who were in turn “assessed” a fee by the party. Starting in the 1880s, however, Congress and the states instituted civil-service examinations and bans on party assessments.
So the parties looked to America’s burgeoning corporate sector for election funds. In 1896, Republican operative Mark Hanna raised at least $3.5 million – a then-unheard-of sum – in support of the victorious William McKinley, distributing more than 100 million campaign documents in 10 different languages. According to Theodore Roosevelt, Hanna “advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine.”
But in 1904, during his own successful run for the White House, Roosevelt was stung by revelations that his campaign manager – a partner in the J.P. Morgan investment bank – had secretly deposited almost $50,000 in an account of the Republican National Committee. To get in front of the scandal, Roosevelt called for a ban on corporate contributions in federal elections.
Three years later, Congress enacted such a ban. Shortly after that, it also passed laws requiring parties to disclose their campaign contributors and capping total expenditures on House and Senate contests. “The use of inordinate sums of money in campaigns is un-American and undemocratic,” declared one lawmaker, in support of the reforms. “It puts a premium on greed and avarice and magnifies these qualities into political ideals of the nation.”
A local judge echoed the same Progressive theme: Without strong regulations, rich people would dominate politics. "Our boasted freedom and equality have become mere mockery and delusion,” the judge wrote, if “the hopes and aspirations of every man for political preferment, whatever his learning, ability, and talents, must be measured and bounded by the size of his pocketbook.”
Alas, that’s precisely what happened. In the 1970s, Congress restricted how much an individual candidate could contribute to his or her own campaign. But the restrictions were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which deemed campaign contributions a form of speech – and hence protected by the First Amendment.
And three years ago, in the Citizens United case, the Court struck down limits on corporate spending as well. Although corporations are still barred from giving money directly to campaigns, they’re now free to shell out as much as they’d like to persuade the public to vote for – or against – a candidate.
Liberals like myself howled at these rulings, which allow a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg – or any big corporation – to exert an absurdly disproportionate influence on electoral outcomes. To borrow our favorite metaphor, the rich get a megaphone. And it drowns out the rest of Americans, no matter how loudly we shout.
So where are the liberal voices, rising up in indignity to protest Bloomberg’s most recent political spending spree? I don’t hear them. Instead he’s our hero, because he’s bankrolling endeavors that we embrace.
Our Progressive forbears knew that politics should depend on who can make the best arguments, not on who has the biggest wallet. Gun control was an urgent and worthy cause well before Michael Bloomberg started underwriting it. By keeping quiet about his undue influence on the process, we erode our own credibility. And that might ultimately harm the campaign for gun control, all in the guise of propping it up.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).