Warning: after reading today's post about campaign finance 2012, a poor reader might feel the urge to take a quick shower. In this blogger's humble opinion: kudos to the POTUS 44 and brickbats to his Dumbo/Teabagger opponent. If this is (fair & balanced) critique of the abuse of public trust, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Schmooze Or Lose
By Jane Mayer
Tag Cloud of the following article
The summer before the 2010 congressional elections, the Democrats’ prospects began to look alarmingly weak. On July 28th, President Barack Obama flew to New York City for two high-priced fund-raisers aimed at replenishing his party’s war chest, largely with money from Wall Street. For a busy President, such events could be a chore. And Obama had never been a Wall Street type. In 1983, Obama, then a recent college graduate who wore a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes, took a job on the periphery of New York’s financial sector: for a year, he worked for Business International, a firm that produced economic trade reports for multinational companies. According to Obama’s mother, he told her that this foray into the corporate world amounted to “working for the enemy,” as David Maraniss recounts in his new biography, “Barack Obama: The Story.” By the time that Obama ran for President, in 2008, his relations with the financial industry had grown warmer, and he attracted more donations from Wall Street leaders than John McCain, his Republican opponent, did. Yet this good feeling did not last, despite the government’s bailout of the banking sector. Many financial titans felt that the President’s attitude toward the “one per cent” was insufficiently admiring, even hostile.
The planning for the fund-raisers seemed to underline this estrangement. Obama’s first event was a 6 P.M. dinner at the Four Seasons. About forty contributors, many of them from Wall Street, had paid thirty thousand dollars each to dine with him. Some of the invitees were disgruntled supporters who felt unfairly blamed for the country’s economic problems, and they wanted to vent about what they considered Obama’s anti-business tone. But the President did not have enough time to hear them out—or even share a meal—because after only an hour he was scheduled to leave for the second fund-raiser, at the downtown home of Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. At the Four Seasons, the President could spend about seven minutes per table, each of which accommodated eight donors. This was fund-raising as speed-dating.
The President’s staff knew that Obama wouldn’t have a moment to eat properly that day, and that it would be hard for him to do so while being the focus of attention at the fund-raisers. So time was set aside at the Four Seasons for Obama to grab a bite, in a “ready room,” with Reggie Love, his personal aide, and Valerie Jarrett, his close friend, senior adviser, and liaison to the business community. This arrangement, however, inadvertently left the impression that Obama preferred his staff’s company to that of the paying guests.
“Obama is very meticulous—they have clockwork timing,” one of the attendees says. “After a few minutes at each table, a staffer would come and tap him on the shoulder, and he’d get up. But when people pay thirty thousand they want to talk to you, and take a picture with you. He was trying to be fair, and that’s great, but every time he started to have a real conversation he got tapped.”
The attendee appreciates that such events must get tiresome for Obama. “Each person, at each table, says to the President, ‘Here’s what you have to do . . .’ At the next table, it’s the same.” Even so, he noted that Bill Clinton—who set the gold standard for the art form known as “donor maintenance”—would have presided over the same event with more enthusiasm: “He would have stayed an extra hour.” After that Four Seasons dinner, the attendee adds, “people were a little mad.
Top Obama donors began grumbling on the first day of the Administration. “The swearing-in was the beginning of pissing off the donors,” a longtime Washington fund-raiser says. “During the inaugural weekend, they didn’t have the capacity to handle all the people who had participated at the highest levels, because there were so many.” One middle-aged widow, from whom the fund-raiser had secured fifty thousand dollars, got four tickets to the swearing-in, but none of them were together. “She was so offended!” the fund-raiser says. “And I got no credit, by the way, for bringing her in. Important donors need to be cultivated so that they’re there four years later.”
As the Washington fund-raiser sees it, the White House social secretary must spend the first year of an Administration saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Instead, the fund-raiser says, Obama’s first social secretary, Desirée Rogers—a stylish Harvard Business School graduate and a friend from Chicago—made some donors feel unwelcome. Anita McBride, the chief of staff to Laura Bush, says, “It’s always a very delicate balance at the White House. Do donors think they are buying favors or access? You have to be very conscious of how you use the trappings of the White House. But you can go too far in the other direction, too. Donors are called on to do a lot. It doesn’t take a lot to say thank you.” One of the simplest ways, she notes, is to provide donors with “grip-and-grin” photographs with the President. “It doesn’t require a lot of effort on anyone’s part, but there’s been a reluctance to do it” in the Obama White House. “That can produce some hurt feelings.”
Big donors were particularly offended by Obama’s reluctance to pose with them for photographs at the first White House Christmas and Hanukkah parties. Obama agreed to pose with members of the White House press corps, but not with donors, because, a former adviser says, “he didn’t want to have to stand there for fourteen parties in a row.” This decision continues to provoke disbelief from some Democratic fund-raisers. “It’s as easy as falling off a log!” one says. “They just want a picture of themselves with the President that they can hang on the bathroom wall, so that their friends can see it when they take a piss.” Another says, “Oh, my God—the pictures, the fucking pictures!” (In 2010, the photograph policy was reversed; Rogers left the Administration that year.)
Creating a sense of intimacy with the President is especially important with Democratic donors, a frustrated Obama fund-raiser argues: “Unlike Republicans, they have no business interest being furthered by the donation—they just like to be involved. So it makes them more needy. It’s like, ‘If you’re not going to deregulate my industry, or lower my taxes, can’t I at least get a picture?’ ”
Democrats involved in the 2012 campaign say that the President and his White House staff have markedly improved their donor-maintenance skills. In June, Obama spent an evening attending a successful forty-thousand-dollar-a-head fund-raiser, along with Bill Clinton, in the Upper East Side town house of Marc Lasry, the billionaire C.E.O. of Avenue Capital Group. (Clinton is expected to help at other such events.) But if Obama hopes to catch up with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 money race, he will need to get a lot more rich Democrats to empty their pockets.
In the past, a President’s ability to charm the super-rich might not have mattered much. A decade ago, however, wealthy Democrats and Republicans began circumventing limits on direct campaign contributions by making enormous donations to political groups that were technically separate from campaigns but effectively served as their proxies, often by funding negative ads. In 2004, the outspoken liberal financier George Soros gave $27.5 million—then a record amount—to groups opposing President George W. Bush. The strategy provoked widespread censure. (The Republican National Committee accused Soros of having “purchased the Democratic Party.”) Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California at Irvine, says that “a legal cloud hung over” such efforts to sway elections. But in 2010 the Supreme Court, in the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled that groups could make “independent expenditures” without limits, because such spending amounted to “political speech.” Subsequently, a lower court ruled, in Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission, that individuals could pool unlimited resources in order to support or criticize candidates, as long as these efforts were not explicitly coördinated with official campaigns. Since then, the number of indirect gifts has soared, giving rise to the “Super PAC,” and very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics.
As Politico reported recently, a pool of only twenty-one hundred people has given a total of two hundred million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom eighty-six per cent. And this accounts only for publicly disclosed donations: much of the money raised during this election cycle consists of secret gifts to “nonprofit public-welfare” groups that claim to have no overt political agenda.
Obama’s 2012 campaign has held a record number of fund-raisers, but it has focussed on collecting the relatively small sums of money that can be contributed directly to a federal candidate’s campaign. This year, the limit on such “hard” donations is five thousand dollars per candidate, and thirty thousand eight hundred dollars to a national political party. Obama has consistently led Romney in direct donations, though the gap is narrowing. Romney, however, has overwhelmingly outpaced Obama in the kind of “mega” donations that have flourished since the Citizens United ruling. By the end of July, the two biggest Super PACs allied with Romney, Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, had raised about a hundred and twenty-two million dollars. The most prominent Super PACs allied with Obama, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, had raised only about thirty million.
By August, at least thirty-three American billionaires had each given a quarter of a million dollars, or more, to groups whose aim is to defeat Obama. At this point in the campaign, most of that money is funding attack ads in swing states like Colorado and Virginia. Federal-election reports indicate that twenty-seven of those billionaires have given large donations to Restore Our Future, which was founded by former Romney aides, and to American Crossroads, which was conceived by the Republican political operative Karl Rove. News reports have linked six of the billionaires to nonprofit social-welfare groups that aren’t required to identify contributors. Earlier this month, one of those groups, Americans for Prosperity—which was founded, in part, by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch—purchased a reported twenty-five million dollars in advertising time; the spots are now airing on television stations in eleven swing states. Though Americans for Prosperity is purportedly nonpartisan, its ads attack Obama for presiding over a growing federal deficit.
According to ProPublica, Americans for Prosperity and another conservative group have accounted for more than eighty per cent of spending by social-welfare nonprofits in the 2012 election cycle. Conservative social-welfare groups have already spent some seventy million dollars on television ads, whereas liberal groups have spent only $1.6 million.
Meanwhile, only three billionaires have contributed at least a quarter of a million dollars to Priorities USA, the largest pro-Obama Super PAC. George Soros has given money to the Super PAC American Bridge, which produces opposition research for liberal candidates. Warren Buffett, America’s second-richest man, is one of Obama’s most high-profile supporters, but he has declared that he will not support Super PACs, saying, “I don’t want to see democracy go in that direction.”
This imbalance has caused alarm among Democratic strategists, and Obama has warned—perhaps with some exaggeration—that, unless wealthy supporters make large gifts, he will become the only sitting President in recent history to be outspent in a campaign. In June, The Daily Beast obtained a recording of a fund-raising call that Obama made from Air Force One, in which he told potential donors not to be surprised if a couple of Republican billionaires “wrote twenty-million-dollar checks” to buy “all the TV time,” leaving Democrats “flat-footed in September or October.”
It’s not easy for Obama to play the current money game, since he has repeatedly called it an unethical contest. He reserved some of the harshest words of his Presidency for the Citizens United ruling, saying that he couldn’t “think of anything more devastating to the public interest.” Indeed, advocates of campaign-finance reform think that it’s perverse to fault Obama for being insufficiently solicitous of billionaires. Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, says, “The whole question of whether the President’s donors are happy just boils down to how corrupting this whole system is. That the President, with all the other things on his plate, has to worry about keeping high rollers happy is just sad.” She adds, “We’re heading toward plutocracy, pretty clearly.”
David Axelrod, the senior strategist of Obama’s 2012 campaign, warns that the Citizens United decision may have permanently tilted the playing field away from not just Obama but all future Democratic candidates. “The Supreme Court is saying that campaign spending is a matter of free speech, but it has set up a situation where the more money you have the more speech you can buy,” Axelrod says. “That’s a threatening concept for democracy.” He adds, “If your party serves the powerful and well-funded interests, and there’s no limit to what you can spend, you have a permanent, structural advantage. We’re averaging fifty-dollar checks in our campaign, and trying to ward off these seven- or even eight-figure checks on the other side. That disparity is pretty striking, and so are the implications. In many ways, we’re back in the Gilded Age. We have robber barons buying the government.”
Arnold Hiatt, the former chairman of Stride Rite shoes, has been one of the most consistent liberal donors in recent decades, and also one of the most vocal proponents of public campaign financing. Though he is sympathetic to Obama’s fund-raising challenges, he also thinks that the campaign may have miscalculated. “The people who have the wherewithal have not been cultivated,” he says. “Citizens United didn’t come along until quite late. I think Obama thought he wouldn’t need those people.”
As Hiatt sees it, “Obama is in a bind.” Throughout his career, the President has supported campaign-finance reform. Not only did he speak out against the Citizens United ruling; he initially declined to encourage supporters to donate to Priorities USA. By the end of 2011, however, Obama’s campaign managers had realized that Super PACs opposing the President posed a lethal threat. At Obama’s campaign headquarters, in Chicago, Jim Messina, the campaign manager, wrote “$800,000,000” on a whiteboard, and told Axelrod that the Republicans’ indirect-donation network was capable of raising at least that amount to defeat Obama.
In February, after considerable debate, during which some advisers urged the President to stick to his principles and preserve his opposition to Citizens United as a political issue, the campaign bowed to the new economic reality and announced that it would begin encouraging donations to Super PACs that supported Obama’s candidacy. Campaign officials even promised to send Administration members to speak to potential Super PAC donors—though Obama would not do so himself.
“We concluded we couldn’t play touch football if they were playing tackle,” Axelrod says, adding that the eight-hundred-million-dollar figure now looks quaint. He says that Republican spending in the Presidential race, including that of outside groups, may exceed $1.2 billion.
Hiatt worries that Obama’s reversal may be too little, too late. “He said he’d accept money from Super PACs, but he’s done nothing to encourage it,” Hiatt says. “It’s cost him dearly.”
Hiatt is a member of the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy liberal donors led by Rob McKay, an heir to the Taco Bell fortune. In November, Hiatt asked the President to speak to the group, but Obama declined; the White House said that he was too busy. In June, 2011, the Federal Election Commission announced that candidates could be “featured guests” at Super PAC events, but such interactions remain a legal gray area. Hiatt believes that Obama was concerned that giving the speech would violate the spirit of campaign-finance law, which bars candidates from “coördinating” with outside fund-raising groups.
Romney has played by different rules. Last year, he declared, “I’m not allowed to communicate with a Super PAC in any way, shape, or form. If we coördinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house.” Yet he has come very close to crossing that line. He has communicated directly with Super PAC supporters on many occasions, stopping only at directly soliciting funds from them.
In July, 2011, Romney attended a private dinner in New York, purportedly to show his appreciation for two dozen current and potential donors. After delivering brief remarks, he departed, leaving the solicitation of funds to others. In June, Romney mingled with wealthy supporters at a weekend retreat at a Utah ski resort. That same weekend, the Huffington Post later revealed, two hundred wealthy guests attended a nearby luncheon featuring a speech by Karl Rove, the architect of American Crossroads, the pro-Romney Super PAC. Technically, the two events were independent, though even that distinction was blurry; the luncheon was sponsored by an investment fund led by Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, and the finance chief of Romney’s campaign, Spencer Zwick. And in July, at a fund-raising breakfast in Jerusalem, Romney sat next to the top donor to pro-Romney Super PACs: the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has so far spent $41.1 million of his $24.9-billion fortune on the effort to defeat Obama and other Democrats, and has pledged to spend as much as a hundred million dollars.
Of the proposed Democracy Alliance event, Hiatt says, “Obama wouldn’t have asked for money, but he could have addressed a group of very wealthy progressive donors who have a Super PAC.” In the end, Hiatt says, Obama must have considered it “too close for comfort.” Part of Obama’s reluctance, he believes, was based on principle, and another part was personal. “Obama is not a lover by nature,” Hiatt says. “He is so private, and so emotionally and intellectually honest. He doesn’t like to stroke people.”
Many top Democratic donors are as disheartened as Obama is about the top-dollar gamesmanship unleashed by the Citizens United ruling. Many wealthy liberals oppose the very idea of Super PACs. A Democratic billionaire told me, “I’m happy to spend, but not on Super PACs. They don’t seem like they should be legal. They’re undemocratic.” Asked if he’d continue to abstain if it meant that Obama would lose, he said, “I find it hard to believe Obama won’t win.”
Arnold Hiatt has not yet given money to Priorities USA, the Super PAC. Instead, he has tried to persuade other, even wealthier liberals to do so. “If I put a million dollars in, I’d like to know it has company,” he says. “We can leverage it, to raise a hundred million.” But so far the Democrats have lacked what is known as a “lead donor”: a high-profile figure who contributes a splashy amount and signals to other big players that it is time to do the same. “It’s really sad,” Hiatt says. “You could buy this election for a billion dollars.”
Another major Democratic donor asks, “Where’s Penny Pritzker? Where’s George Soros?” Pritzker, a businesswoman and the billionaire heiress to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, was Obama’s campaign-finance chairperson in 2008. Both Pritzker and Soros have given five thousand dollars to Obama’s official campaign, but neither has given money to Priorities USA. “Whatever it is that has made George Soros and Penny Pritzker not write checks to the Super PAC is a very serious weakness,” the major donor says. Also missing from the Priorities USA roster is the insurance-company mogul Peter Lewis, who donated millions to Democratic efforts in 2004; this year, he is reportedly focussing his giving elsewhere, including on a broad campaign to legalize marijuana. In 2008, David Geffen, the Hollywood music and film producer, made headlines by breaking with the Clintons in favor of supporting Obama. This time around, Geffen has contributed the legal maximum amount to the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party, but he has given nothing to Priorities USA. Two acquaintances of Geffen’s say that he has complained about Obama’s remoteness since becoming President. (Geffen says that he “totally supports this President.”)
“There’s been no thanks for anyone!” the major Democratic donor says. He adds that in 2008 he gave “multiple millions” to groups working to elect Obama. But, he notes, although he has attended various White House functions, and has met Obama on several occasions, “I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.” He says that he has been introduced twice to Jarrett, “and neither time did she remember who I am.” Instead, he says, “she seemed to think she was blessing me by breathing in the same space.” Despite repeated pitches, he has not yet given money to Priorities USA. In his view, the Obama White House has not followed the fundamental rule of donor maintenance, which he himself has practiced while fund-raising for other causes: “You have to suck up!” With Obama, he says, “I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, an ego thing, or an intellectual thing. I just don’t get it. But people want to be kissed. They want to be thanked.”
Obama, he says, is “so interested in doing the right thing that he thought other people would be interested in him for doing the right thing, and he thinks that’s all that’s needed.”
Axelrod defends the President. “He’s worked hard to raise the money we need and by no means takes that support for granted,” he says. “He appreciates it. But he’s not carnivorous about it. He doesn’t see himself as Fund-raiser-in-Chief.”
Obama sought the Presidency in part because he hoped to alter the relationship between powerful financial interests and those who govern. On his first day in office, he banned lobbyists from his Administration. He later noted, “One of the reasons I ran for President was because I believed so strongly that the voices of everyday Americans—hardworking folks doing everything they can to stay afloat—just weren’t being heard over the powerful voices of the special interests in Washington.” During the 2008 campaign, he discouraged supporters from contributing unlimited sums to “527 groups,” the predecessors of Super PACs.
Obama acknowledges that his record on campaign-finance issues is not entirely pure. In 2008, after championing campaign-finance reform in the Senate, he broke his own pledge to accept public financing as a Presidential candidate, and became instead the first nominee since Watergate to depend entirely on private funds. The decision was pragmatic: he was so popular that he handily raised more money than John McCain, ultimately spending a record-breaking seven hundred and forty-five million dollars. In 2007, Obama admitted that he suffered “from the same original sin of all politicians, which is: We’ve got to raise money.” But he insisted that he would fight to reform the system: “The argument is not that I’m pristine, because I’m swimming in the same muddy water. The argument is that I know it’s muddy and I want to clean it up.”
Maraniss, the Obama biographer, believes that the President’s attitude toward money is complicated. “There is a misimpression that his family was alienated from the capitalist system,” Maraniss says. “Not so.” He points out that both Obama’s grandmother Madelyn Dunham, a vice-president at the Bank of Hawaii, and his mother, Anne Dunham, an anthropologist who developed a microloan program for Indonesian artisans, worked in the financial realm. But it’s also true that Obama never had any interest in business, and that instead of pursuing more lucrative opportunities he chose to become a poorly paid community organizer in Chicago. While attending Harvard Law School, Obama spent his one summer at a corporate firm debating fellow-associates about the need to “give back” to society.
Obama met his wife, Michelle, at the firm. Although the two were Ivy League graduates, it’s often forgotten how atypical their economic backgrounds were in those circles. The First Lady emphasized this at a recent campaign event in New Hampshire, explaining that Barack “knows what it means when a family struggles,” for “he is the son of a single mother who struggled to pay the bills and put him and his sister through school.” Michelle herself, as a child, lived in a bungalow on Chicago’s South Side which was so small that her parents slept on the living-room couch. While she was at Princeton, her aunt worked nearby, as a domestic servant. According to Jodi Kantor, the author of The Obamas, Michelle and Barack shared an early conviction that the gap between the rich and the poor had less to do with hard work and merit than with “opportunity, power, access and wealth.” Obama continues to see economic success as the result of many factors besides individual effort, and, consequently, he may be less awed by wealth than others.
During his rise in Chicago politics, Obama won over many rich donors, including Pritzker. But, in his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes warily of their seductive influence. He describes the “law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists” whom he courted for donations to his 2004 Senate campaign as mostly “smart, interesting people,” who asked for no specific favors. Yet, Obama wrote, politicians who spent too much time among the wealthy risked losing touch with the “frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”
Obama, Maraniss says, “showed no disdain for raising money,” but he demonstrated less reverence for wealthy backers than many other politicians did. Maraniss sees Obama as a man with “a moviegoer’s or writer’s sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating, and views much of the political process as ridiculous or surreal, even as he is deep into it.” He adds, “I think donors can sense this ambivalence.”
A former adviser to the President points out that Obama rose so quickly in national politics that “he never built a relationship at all with traditional Democratic donors.” Just a dozen years ago, in 2000, Obama had so few Democratic Party connections that he couldn’t get a floor pass at the Democratic National Convention. In 2004, he ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, and was one of several contenders in a Democratic primary; big, national donors were not inclined to involve themselves in the contest, and therefore did not get to know him. That year, however, he gave a galvanizing keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Vaulted to fame, Obama no longer needed to search for money—it flowed his way. He was in the Senate for only two years before announcing his Presidential candidacy, and during that time he was the most sought-after attraction at other Democrats’ fund-raisers. He spent little time cultivating his own donor network. “Obama didn’t develop the deep personal relationships with fund-raisers that most people have by the time they run for President,” the former adviser says. By contrast, Bill Clinton, who had been collecting supporters since his undergraduate days, at Georgetown, had a huge network in place when he ran for the Presidency, in 1992.
When Obama ran for the Presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, in 2008, most of the traditional large Democratic donors supported her. His other rivals—Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and John Edwards—had, after years in the Senate, also developed finance networks. The Obama campaign was forced to build an alternative financial base, consisting of a few major Illinois donors, such as Pritzker, and an intricate network of small- and medium-sized donors, many of whom were new to national politics. Obama’s team famously utilized social media to engage first-time, small donors.
But, as Richard Wolffe writes in Renegade, his book about Obama’s 2008 campaign, contrary to Obama’s “carefully cultivated image, the money did not grow at the grass roots.” Before Obama secured the Democratic nomination, funds raised on the Internet accounted for only a fraction of his haul. Instead, he attended a back-breaking number of fund-raisers, and asked everyone he and his supporters knew to contribute to his campaign the maximum legal amount of hard money, which was then forty-six hundred dollars. Obama’s operation, Wolffe writes, was “a hybrid of corporate management and community organizing.” It was not a chummy collaboration between a candidate and super-wealthy players. Harold Ickes, the veteran Democratic strategist, says, “The Obama people were tutored in the context of small money. They saw the big money as corrupt.”
Bill Clinton, by contrast, was so inventively solicitous of the rich that he was accused—falsely, he insisted—of auctioning off sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. People raising Democratic funds this year say that wealthy donors regularly complain of getting poorer treatment than they did during the Clinton years, when the President and Terry McAuliffe, his campaign-finance chairperson, formed a tireless tag team. One fund-raiser says, “There used to be regularized dinners, and stays at the Lincoln Bedroom or Camp David. This President spends his time with his friends, and doesn’t much suffer being around people just because they gave money. He does more than you think, but it’s a different culture. It’s much less than either Bush or Clinton. Those Administrations knew when it was somebody’s birthday, or someone’s grandson’s bar mitzvah.”
Hiatt, the former Stride Rite chairman, has witnessed at first hand the difference between Obama and Bill Clinton. In 1996, Hiatt divided half a million dollars among thirty-eight congressional candidates (all of whom were committed to campaign-finance reform). He recalls, “That gave me the dubious distinction of being the second-largest contributor to the Democratic National Committee, which I shuddered at.” In the spring of 1997, he says, President Clinton invited him to a dinner. When he arrived, he found thirty top contributors seated around a table. “It was so vulgar,” he says. “The biggest donors were closest to the President. On his right was Bernard Schwartz, of Loral Corporation, who was later given permission to launch a satellite in China.” (Schwartz, who was cleared of accusations that his donations were improper, says he is “truly sorry” for having given large sums, in indirect gifts, to Democrats—a strategy that he calls “inimical to the well-being of politics in the country.”) After dinner, Hiatt recalls, Clinton “stroked the fat cats,” asking each donor for his thoughts, and obligingly taking notes.
Such social affirmation is the goal of most big Democratic donors, the former Obama adviser says: “Usually, it’s not about favors. They want the chief of staff calling to get their opinion. Or they want to say, when they are out in the Hamptons, that they were just talking with the President.”
But Obama still rarely calls donors. One fund-raiser estimates that even now, at the height of the election season, he probably makes only a few such calls a month. Chicago supporters who have raised money for him for years say that it’s just how he is.
A Chicago donor, who has attended events at the White House, and describes the President as “unfailingly courteous, warm, wonderful, and generous,” notes that Obama has never called him. “He’s more of an introspective guy than either Bill Clinton or George Bush,” the donor says. “He’s fantastic in small groups, but he’s not the kind of guy I would go out and have a beer with. But, by the way, that’s not my thing, either. I’m busy, and he’s got more important things to do.”
In addition to being less of a glad-hander than most politicians, Obama is also the first President in a long time to have small children in the White House. Some Washingtonians have complained that Obama rarely goes out at night or socializes with members of Congress, preferring to spend time with his family. Jodi Kantor, in her book, points out that the President is unwilling to miss dinner with his family more than two nights a week. This doesn’t leave much time for strategic socializing.
A few big donors, such as Robert Wolf, a former top executive at UBS, have become genuine friends of Obama’s. But, for a politician, Obama is unusually self-contained. In this regard, some have likened him to Jimmy Carter. Gerald Rafshoon, who was Carter’s media adviser in the White House, agrees that Carter had little appetite for massaging donors or Washington power brokers. But, Rafshoon says, Robert Strauss, the former chairman of the Democratic Party, persuaded Carter to do it anyway: “Carter didn’t like fund-raising, but he did it. He also knew he had to have dinner with senators like Russell Long. We also had thirty dinners in the residence for the press. It paid off.” Perhaps, he suggests, Obama needs more advisers telling him, “This is necessary. Do it.”
As Sheldon Adelson has shown, a single billionaire donor has the potential to make a critical difference in an American Presidential race. For this reason, there has been intense interest, on the Democratic side, in gauging the intentions of George Soros, who is ranked seventh on Forbes’s list of the wealthiest Americans. Over the past thirty years, no benefactor has contributed more to liberal causes. Campaign donations have been a small part of his philanthropy, but in 2008, four years after he made his record campaign donations, he gave five million dollars to help elect Barack Obama. This kept expectations high for 2012.
Soros declined to comment for this article. But several people familiar with his thinking suggest that Soros—who was born in Hungary, and who has made his fortune in global investments—is currently preoccupied with other issues, such as the fate of the European Union, and is not inclined to take an outsized role in the 2012 Presidential campaign. As an advocate for greater government transparency, he is reportedly uncomfortable with the burgeoning role that secret donations now play in U.S. elections. In addition, confidants say that, although he still supports Obama, Soros has been disappointed by him, both politically and personally. Small slights can loom large with wealthy donors. When Soros wanted to meet with Obama in Washington to discuss global economic problems, Obama’s staff failed to respond. Eventually, they arranged not a White House interview but, rather, a low-profile, private meeting in New York, when the President was in town for other business. Soros found this back-door treatment confounding. “He feels hurt,” a Democratic donor says.
“They pissed on him,” a confidant says. “He didn’t want a fucking thing! He didn’t want a state dinner, or a White House party—he just wanted to be taken seriously.”
A second Soros confidant has a different view. Although he acknowledges that Soros might have contributed far more money to Obama if the Administration had engaged with him more intently, he said, “Part of me respects Obama for not spending more time with him. This President doesn’t want to spend a lot of time with donors. You have to admire that.”
Still, some critics suggest that the failure to tap Soros shows that the Democrats are no match for the Republican money machine that conservatives began building in 2010. “We just don’t have a Karl Rove type—we need a political celebrity,” a top fund-raiser for Obama says. Priorities USA is headed by two former White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. “The guys running Priorities are very good at politics, but they have zero fund-raising experience,” the Obama fund-raiser says. “Fund-raising is all about relationships.” After a rough start, Priorities USA has hired several more experienced fund-raisers, and done better. But one of those veterans says, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
There are essentially three deep wells of Democratic cash in the country: New York, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley. So far, the high-tech industry has not contributed large sums to Obama. Some prominent Democrats, such as Chris Hughes—a co-founder of Facebook who helped manage Obama’s Web strategy in 2008—have devoted themselves to campaign-finance reform instead. Hughes and his husband, Sean Eldridge, have decided not to give money to any Super PACs, and to match any donations they make to candidates with donations to groups working to diminish the role of money in politics. Asked about Obama’s reluctance to court the extremely wealthy, Hughes described it as “a virtue.”
John Emerson, the Democratic National Committee’s Southern California finance co-chair, says that many tech barons have “a distaste for Super PACs—they don’t want to spend on thirty-second ads. There’s a sense that there’s something wrong with that process. Instead, you see people very involved in specific issues. So Tom Steyer”—a billionaire hedge-fund manager in San Francisco—“almost single-handedly defeated an initiative that would have gutted auto-emission standards in California. And Jeff Bezos is putting money into supporting same-sex marriage.” (Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has given $2.5 million to a gay-marriage campaign in Washington State.)
So far, Obama’s most notable support has come from Hollywood. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the C.E.O. of DreamWorks Animation, has given one of the largest donations to pro-Obama Super PACs: two million dollars. The actor Morgan Freeman and the comedian Bill Maher have each given a million dollars to Priorities USA. The difference in temperament between Clinton and Obama is felt particularly keenly in Hollywood, however. Donna Bojarsky, a political adviser to the entertainment community, says, “Clinton is a voracious consumer of popular culture, and he loved California.” A California fund-raiser says, “Clinton was so good, it raised the bar.” Democratic operatives in the state recall that Clinton habitually called them before flying out, to catch up on gossip and learn whom he needed to see. The Obama entourage is all business: donors are rarely invited to fly on Air Force One or ride in the President’s car. The personal touch is missed. As the California fund-raiser puts it, “Ego is a big part of the business out here.”
Katzenberg has been invited to a state dinner at the White House, but he has never met privately with the President. “One of the things we so love about this President is his integrity, and his attempts to bring new ethics to Washington,” the fund-raiser says. “But it makes our job harder.”
Obama’s relationship with people in the finance industry, meanwhile, remains badly strained. “We lost Wall Street,” a Democratic fund-raiser acknowledges. “They think they’re so important, the driving force behind the country. . . . Their view of the White House is ‘How dare they?’ ” Donors at financial firms currently account for eight of Romney’s top ten sources of campaign funds. None of Obama’s top ten sources of cash are financial firms. The change from 2008 is dramatic: four years ago, as Bloomberg News reported, seventy-five per cent of the campaign donations given by employees of Goldman Sachs went to Obama and the Democrats. This year, the ratio has been nearly reversed, with Democrats collecting just thirty per cent of the Goldman contributions.
Given the huge fortune that Romney accumulated in the private-equity business, the promises that he has made to lower taxes on capital gains, and his refusal to commit to ending tax advantages for hedge funds, his appeal to Wall Street executives is not surprising, Axelrod says: “Romney’s basic pitch to the financial people is ‘I am you! I’m your guardian! I will protect your interests! I won’t touch carried interest. I’ll repeal Dodd-Frank’ ”—the Wall Street regulations that were passed after the 2008 financial crisis. “That’s obviously going to find an audience with some of these folks.”
It is an article of faith among some Democrats that liberals give money to politicians for altruistic reasons, whereas Republicans make campaign contributions as self-serving investments, in order to protect future profits. “It’s a business expense for them,” Axelrod says. “They’ll make it back in no time.” Jonathan Collegio, the spokesman for American Crossroads, the Republican Super PAC, dismisses such thinking as “puerile,” arguing that there are no more “nefarious motivations” behind Republican donors than there are behind Democratic donors, which include major unions promoting their members’ economic interests.
Yet Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who was defeated in 2010 after a flood of outside conservative spending in his district, and who now focusses on campaign-finance issues at the liberal Center for American Progress, argues that the economic incentives for wealthy conservatives are far more obvious. He says of Sheldon Adelson, “He’s got billions he could get back on the overseas-investment tax and the estate tax,” both of which Romney has pledged to abolish. Moreover, Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corporation, is currently the focus of two Justice Department investigations. The first is looking into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, centering on the company’s casinos in Macau. The second investigation, a joint probe with the Securities and Exchange Commission, concerns possible violations of anti-bribery laws. The future leadership of the Justice Department and the S.E.C., then, is of enormous material interest to Adelson.
Similarly, Perriello says, “Oil, coal, and chemical companies also have billions at stake.” He contends, “They’re not giving money just to elect Romney—they’re doing so on a platform of bashing clean energy. Why are there no Republican candidates willing to acknowledge climate change now?” The answer, he suggests, is that huge fossil-fuel companies, like the privately owned Koch Industries, are pouring millions of dollars into electing candidates who will further their agenda. A consortium of conservatives led by the Koch brothers has reportedly pledged to raise and spend four hundred million dollars before November.
“What candidate would buck them?” Perriello asks. “We’ve gone from a couple of billionaires on both sides to a kind of giving that shatters the social contract.”
As an incumbent, Obama has intrinsic advantages when it comes to withstanding the tide of money from wealthy individuals. But, looking ahead, many Democrats grow more concerned. Bill Burton, the former White House aide who is now running Priorities USA, says, “My worry is that the numbers will just get even more astronomical. It could easily be doubled, or quadrupled, by 2016. Once big business realizes it can purchase the White House, you have to wonder what the limit is.” Ω
[Jane Mayer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1995. Mayer is a graduate of Yale University, where she was a stringer for Time magazine. Mayer also has contributed to the New York Review of Books and American Prospect and co-authored two books—Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (1994) (written with Jill Abramson), a study of the controversy-laden nomination and appointment of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, and Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (1989) (written with Doyle McManus), an account of Ronald Reagan's second term in the White House. Mayer's The Dark Side (2008) addressing the origins, legal justifications, and possible war crimes liability of the use of interrogation techniques to break down detainees' resistance and the subsequent deaths of detainees under such interrogation as applied by the CIA was a finalist for the National Book Awards. Mayer is the granddaughter of the late historian and biographer Allan Nevins.]
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves