23 August 2011

Operation 'Push' II: Are donations effective?

How should liberals and leftists feel when libertarians offer them advice? The answer depends on the subject, and the immediate subject of Matt Welch's advice column on the editorial page of Reason magazine (not yet posted online) is drug policy reform. That's a subject on which libertarians and many to their left generally agree, and in the October 2011 cover story Jacob Sullum points out how President Obama's drug policies have belied what Welch calls his "promising" pre-election statements. On drug policy, Welch claims that Obama has been no better than his predecessor. For the editor, this typifies Democratic indifference to many of the party's leading constituencies -- and even some of its leading donors.

As a libertarian, Welch is wont to dismiss the charge that campaign donors dictate policy to politicians, but he offers the case of George Soros -- long a moneybagged bogeyman for right-wingers -- as proof of his point. Welch claims that Soros hasn't gotten much for his money, and explains that the infamous financier has been spending that money unwisely.

The continued crackdown [on medical marijuana, etc.] demonstrates the futility of elevating political parties and their candidates over single issues. Consider that three of the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party since the end of Bush's first term have been George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling -- who also happen to be three of the country's most generous supporters of drug policy reform. Soros in particular is a case study in how giving blanket support to a political party can undermine your favorite causes. According to a 2004 New Yorker article about anti-Bush billionaires by Jane Mayer, Soros's bill of particulars against Obama's predecessor included Bush's attempts to spread democracy at gunpoint, his expansions of presidential power, and his prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. In every one of those areas, as in the drug war, Obama has not been signficantly better than Bush.

Welch seems to have a point, though it'd be more convincing if he could show whether Soros has declared himself satisfied overall with Obama or not. But whatever Soros's personal scorecard looks like, Welch isn't wrong to argue that "Politicians who can take supporters for granted will do precisely that, particularly when taking supporters' issues seriously would require upending the status quo." Because Soros is apparently all in with the Democratic Party, due to whatever aversion he feels toward the Republicans, the financier, despite his reputed vast wealth and power, has no more leverage with the party, on this account, than unemployed urban blacks -- or even less, since he can only ever cast one vote. While his money might appear enticing to Democrats, they'd be willing to do without it, Welch assumes, as long as they don't have to worry about Soros spending it on someone else.

If Soros or any other activist cares more for particular issues than the general benefits of Democratic rule, Welch advises them to swallow their pride and learn something from the Tea Party movement. The TPs have leverage with the Republican party, Welch contends, because they've been able to exert meaningful pressure on GOP leaders like Speaker Boehner, whom the editor describes as "anything but a fiscally responsible, government-limiting public servant." In Welch's analysis, the TPs' power is based on their conviction that "single issues matter more than whether the opposing party might win this or that congressional seat." They'd rather risk defeat in a general election by nominating a candidate who's committed to the issues they care about most than accepting a party hack who puts electability, i.e. the party's interests, first. While the TPs have disappointed opponents of the American Bipolarchy by attempting a takeover of the Republican party, Welch notes that their Republican commitment is always conditional. Despite their presumed hatred of liberals, not getting their own way is more intolerable to them than Democratic victories; if a Republican won't do things their way, there may as well be a Democrat in his place, though the TPs will do all they can to elect one of their own. Perhaps paradoxically, their threat to make Republicans unelectable through the primary process has made them something like an independent force in Bipolarchy politics. Until activist constituencies in the Democratic camp show equal daring, Welch warns, they'll never push their party effectively in any direction. As one opponent of the "war on drugs" tells Jacob Sullum, Obama ignores his group's demands because "those who care have not made him pay a political price yet."

According to this logic, if George Soros cares strongly about drug policy, he should use his money to finance primary challengers to Democratic drug-war hawks, or third-party candidates if necessary, and he should find ways to pressure Democratic legislators into linking drug-policy reform to essential bills in order to "grind the gears of politics as usual" as the Tea Partiers have. Other activist constituencies could do likewise. Such an approach might restore to Congress the pluralist clash of interests originally envisioned by the Founders in place of the bipolar clash of parties that has plagued the nation. On the other hand, if you blame Tea Party successes on a weak President, as many disgruntled Democrats do, it might not follow that TP tactics will work every time. However the experiment might turn out, Matt Welch has made a provocative argument that stresses the dependence of donors upon parties, rather than vice versa, as a cause of political paralysis. If partisan inertia can thwart the influence of money, then partisanship is at least as much of a problem as the role of money in politics. But if rule-or-ruin single-issue politics is the cure for partisanship, it remains to be seen whether that might prove worse than the disease.

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