There was a birthday party out here this weekend – Richard Henry Dana would have been two hundred years old on Saturday, if anyone lasted that long. He didn’t, but his book Two Years Before the Mast did – so, in his honor, more than a few people showed up on Saturday at Dana Point just down the coast, at the Ocean Institute’s replica of the Pilgrim, the ship with that mast in his 1840 memoir. That memoir was the American adventure book for almost one hundred years, and a true-life adventure at that – the story of a callow young man who, in 1834, decides to go to sea and rough it – from Boston Harbor down to Cape Horn and up the other coast to Alta California – part of Mexico back then. The term “before the mast” refers to the quarters of the common sailors, in the forecastle, up front. He was a grunt and he was abused, but he grew up. Now he knew about the abuse of power and what life was like for most men, just trying to get by – and he learned about hard work and honesty. Sometimes it gets you nowhere. People get warped. Herman Melville said he couldn’t have written Moby Dick without Dana setting the stage.
That’s all very romantic, but Dana didn’t like California very much. Dana spent only a day and a half in what would later be Dana Point – which he thought was one of the few nice places out here. When his ship sailed through Capistrano Bay, Dana described the cliffs as “the only romantic spot on the coast” – but Dana wasn’t the one who gave Dana Point its name. That was the California Geological Survey in 1884 – they remembered that passage. And he wasn’t what he seemed. He came from one of the most powerful and prominent families in New England. His grandfather, Francis Dana, had been the first American minister to Russia and later became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. His father was a poet and critic. In 1825, his father enrolled him in a private school overseen by Ralph Waldo Emerson – Dana later said Emerson was “a very pleasant instructor” but lacked a “system or discipline enough to insure regular and vigorous study.” Dana entered Harvard in 1831, and in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six-month suspension. In his junior year he contracted measles – that screwed up his eyesight and left him weak. His two-year stint as a common sailor was supposed to fix that – but he was slumming. He wasn’t a callow youth.
When he got back Massachusetts he enrolled in what is now Harvard Law School, the Dane Law School back then. He was admitted to the bar in 1840 and went on to specialize in maritime law. Then he became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848, and during the Civil War he served as a United States Attorney. He successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the United States Government could rightfully blockade Confederate ports. After the war he was a member of the Massachusetts legislature and also served as a counsel in the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis – for treason, of course. Those two years out here roughing it were the anomaly. Richard Henry Dana was one of the original over-educated Massachusetts bleeding-heart liberals. He wasn’t a man of the people, he never would be, but he’d fight for them, damn it. The Kennedys would try to carry on that tradition.
Few remember that. They remember the rip-roaring true-life adventure story, and the irony is that while it was iced tea and cake at the Ocean Institute’s replica of the Pilgrim on Saturday in Dana Point, from Politico reporter Kenneth P. Vogel there was also this:
Four leading GOP presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker – are traveling to a Southern California luxury hotel in coming days to make their cases directly to the Koch brothers and hundreds of other wealthy conservatives planning to spend close to $1 billion in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The gathering – which also will include former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, but notably not Sen. Rand Paul – is hosted by Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the umbrella group in the Kochs’ increasingly influential network of political and public policy outfits. It represents a major opportunity for the candidates at a pivotal moment in the presidential primary.
The crowded field of GOP contenders is competing aggressively for the support of uncommitted mega-donors as the campaign hurtles towards its first debates in what’s expected to be a long and costly battle for the Republican nomination.
This was at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point – very posh – and Richard Henry Dana would roll his eyes:
Freedom Partners’ annual summer conference is set for August 1 through August 3, and is expected to draw 450 of the biggest financiers of the right for sessions about the fiscally conservative policies and politics that animate the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch and many of the donors in their network. Most have the capability to write seven- or even eight-figure checks to the super PACs fueling the GOP presidential primary, and a significant proportion have yet to settle on a 2016 choice, or are considering supporting multiple candidates. That includes Charles and David Koch, as well as Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and hedge fund billionaires Paul Singer, both of whom will be represented at the conference by advisers, and a number of other attendees of past conferences whose 2016 leanings are being closely watched.
The Koch operation is not expected to formally back any candidate in the GOP primary. But the Koch brothers and many of their donors can still play kingmaker roles. In addition to the massive checks many are expected to write to the super PACs aligned with specific candidates, they also serve as bellwethers for other donors. … The confirmed candidate attendees will get plenty of chances to win over donors…
This is how things work these days:
A stellar performance at the conference can provide a huge boost for a candidate, as demonstrated by Rubio’s well-received January appearance. The Florida Senator aced his appearance at a joint forum with rival White House prospects Cruz and Paul. Rubio gave crisp and detailed answers to policy and political questions posed by the session moderator, ABC’s Jonathan Karl.
Afterward, Rubio won an informal straw poll of attendees, and impressed a number of donors in one-on-one interactions and a speech. And he got a boost from media coverage of his performance at the forum, which marked the first session ever streamed live to the media from the long-running series of twice-a-year Koch seminars, as the gatherings are known in conservative politics.
Since then, Rubio has made significant headway with the donor class, raising a total of more than $40 million into his presidential campaign and a pair of supportive big-money groups, including a super PAC and a non-profit.
By contrast, Paul – who had worked to cultivate a relationship with Charles Koch based on their shared appreciation of libertarian philosophies – was widely seen as having bombed at the January seminar. And, though there’s not necessarily a direct causal link with his seminar stumble, super PACs supporting Paul have thus far failed to keep up with the big-money fundraising operations of his rivals.
During the forum, Paul, at times slouching in a cushy arm chair with his legs crossed, gave rambling and sometimes unpopular answers. At one point, he opposed eliminating tax benefits to the oil and gas industry – from which Koch Industries, the brothers’ multi-national conglomerate, benefits but which the brothers philosophically oppose. And, in a speech, he raised eyebrows among even some of his ardent supporters by touting tax breaks to spur growth in blighted inner cities. The idea is anathema to the brand of small-government conservatism espoused by the Kochs and many of their network’s donors, who object to marketplace interference.
Paul’s attire didn’t help, either. Some in the buttoned-down crowd remarked later that his boxy blue blazer, faded jeans and cowboy boots gave off a “cavalier” vibe.
One must please these people:
To be sure, certain candidates who have constituencies in the GOP base are nonetheless seen as fundamentally bad fits with the brothers’ brand of free-enterprise conservatism, which focuses on reducing government spending and regulation, while mostly avoiding fights over social and foreign policy issues. It’s notable, for instance, that invitations did not go to current field leader Donald Trump, or the winners of the past two Iowa caucuses – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. … Ohio Gov. John Kasich, in particular, clashed bitterly with a donor at a 2013 seminar over his support for a Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of low-income Ohioans, which he’s suggested was driven partly by his Christian faith.
They’ll have none of that, but who are these people? You’ll never know:
In a rare move, journalists from a handful of major media outlets were granted access this weekend to a private and well-heeled gathering of Republican benefactors, sponsored by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, on one condition: that they do not name any of the 450 donors attending, unless given explicit permission.
A small number of reporters confirmed they are attending the events on the condition that they keep mum. “The Washington Post is one of nine news organizations allowed in to cover the traditionally private confab, on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission,” wrote Post reporter Matea Gold on Saturday.
Politico reporter Kenneth P. Vogel also confirmed on Saturday that his outlet was one of the select few invited “on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission.”
The journalists agreed to these conditions despite the fact that the big donors in attendance are major players in the 2016 presidential election cycle. As Vogel noted: “The network of political and public policy groups backed by the Kochs and their allied donors intends to spend $889 million in the run-up to the 2016 election boosting policies and candidates that adhere to principles like those Koch laid out Saturday.”
So there was some whining:
“The problem is that the ground rules could restrict journalists from reporting what’s right in front of their eyes,” reporter Michael Calderone noted Sunday in the Huffington Post. “If, say, Rupert Murdoch, or even a lesser-known billionaire, walked by, they couldn’t report the person’s attendance without permission.”
Calderone continued: “So it’s possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want, such as fiery speeches and candidate remarks criticizing Democrats, but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election.”
However, there were some people who sought to shine light on the summit. Vogel notes that “a small group of protestors stood outside the entrance to the St. Regis on Saturday, holding signs that read ‘Koch kills democracy,’ and photographing arriving donors, operatives and members of the press.”
Those were the ones who skipped Richard Henry Dana’s nearby birthday party, or were celebrating the old bleeding-heart liberal by carrying on his work. Slate’s Daniel Politi explains what we have now:
In case there was any doubt that money in the presidential campaign has reached unprecedented levels, filings with the Federal Election Commission made it clear how important millionaires and billionaires have become to the process of electing a commander in chief. And the numbers are mighty depressing. “The 67 biggest donors, each of whom gave $1 million or more, donated more than three times as much as the 508,000 smallest donors combined,” reports Politico. These 67 donors gave a whopping $128 million in cold hard cash to super PACs that support specific presidential candidates.
Politico also adds this:
While prospective presidential candidates in past cycles crisscrossed the country cultivating relationships with county chairmen in Iowa and New Hampshire, most 2016 White House aspirants spent the months leading up to their launches schmoozing billionaires. And the FEC and IRS reports show that billionaire checks have not only dwarfed those of small donors who used to be the lifeblood of campaigns, but essentially built the foundations for many presidential bids.
“I don’t see any election that’s remotely like this historically with the concentration at the top,” said Michael Malbin, who founded the Campaign Finance Institute and has been studying campaign funding for more than three decades. “There is a lure to getting your money in big chunks. It comes more quickly and more easily.”
A trio of super PACs supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination raised $36 million from just six donors. Their checks amounted to about 2 ½ times more than Cruz’s presidential campaign has raised since its March launch.
And a super PAC supporting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s GOP campaign raised more from a single home-state supporter – poultry magnate Ronnie Cameron donated $3 million – than Huckabee’s campaign raised overall in its first two months of fundraising – $2 million, according to the reports.
Overall, super PACs have raised $271 million from 9,500 donors. To put that number in perspective, super PACs spent $374 million during the entire 2012 campaign cycle and we’re not even in the primaries yet. “At this point in 2011, only one of the 12 Republican contenders had a super-PAC. That was Mitt Romney, whose super-PAC’s $12 million haul was less than the $18 million raised by his official campaign at that point,” notes Bloomberg.
And the big money is bigger than ever. In 2012, a mere six Republicans donated $5 million or more over the course of the entire campaign cycle. But now, in the first six months of the campaign, nine Republicans have already donated $5 million or more…
Even though the amounts may be higher than ever, the names are all pretty familiar. “The relative absence of new faces in the very small pool of really big donors magnifies the impact of ultra-wealthy individuals who have been participating in the process for years,” points out the Center for Responsive Politics in a piece in the Guardian.
In what may be an ominous sign of things to come though, the financial disclosure reports also reveal just how much candidates have outsourced some of their traditional operations to super PACs. In fact, super PACs often supported candidates before they even threw their hat in the ring. Watchdog groups say the filings put in evidence how candidates have not been shy about getting around the rules that limit how much they can fundraise before officially launching a campaign, reports the New York Times.
“Today’s revelations will just make voter cynicism about politics even worse,” David Donnelly, president of campaign-finance reform advocacy group Every Voice, tells the Times. “How will candidates convince voters they aren’t beholden to $10 million donors?”
Why even bother? Everyone knows how this works. Or maybe they don’t. Rick Perlstein – whose latest book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – thinks the press is to blame here:
Never have so many done so much to reveal so little than in the collected journalism about presidential nomination contests. The personality-driven trivia. The hokey generalizations. The bogs of conventional wisdom. The day-by-day scorekeeping that ends up worse than uninformative; it is anti-informative. (Just ask Presidents George Romney, Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, John Connolly, Richard Gephardt, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.) The utter failure to inform the public of the actual, on-the-ground dynamics of the nuts-and-bolts process by which the parties chose their standard-bearers, and the larger dynamics that drive party trends from decade to decade.
And, last but not least, the shameful lack of any useful contribution to a richer public understanding of what any of this means for the future of the republic at large.
We’re looking at the wrong things:
So, what indicators should a well-informed citizen be following? Not polls. At this point in 2012 Mitt Romney was running behind Rudy Giuliani, with Sarah Palin close behind. Not even, really, the winners of elections. Who won that year’s Iowa caucus? Rick Santorum. He then carried 10 more states. It ended up not mattering. Republican nominations are not simple plebiscites; the process is much more occult than that.
Don’t pay overmuch attention to the braying loudmouths of the activist right either, as they flay Marco Rubio as a handmaiden of the Mexican hordes for daring to express compassion for immigrants; Ohio Governor John Kasich for herding the poor onto the federal plantation by accepting Obamacare’s Medicaid subsidies; Jeb Bush for welcoming brainwashing federal bureaucrats into Florida elementary schools.
Remember they flayed John McCain even worse. Talk-radio host Michael Reagan first noted the “huge gap that separates McCain,” who “has contempt for conservatives who he thinks we can be duped into thinking he’s one of them,” from “my dad, Ronald Reagan.” Eight days later Michael Reagan reconsidered and said “you can bet my father would be itching to get out on the campaign trail, working to elect him.”
Authoritarians follow signals from above. Which won’t keep the puppies of the press corps from dwelling on which candidate the angry Tea Party bleaters are calling “unacceptable” this week, even though that really doesn’t matter.
What about endorsements? For one thing, you’ll have to scour the news to find them. Carly Fiorina may have won the undying devotion of Gene G. Chandler, deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. And have you heard Mike Huckabee has nabbed not just the lieutenant governor of Arkansas, but her secretary of state and state treasurer? But news like that is not particularly useful if you’re a producer or editor hungry for titillated eyeballs. And perhaps that’s for the best…
The bottom line is that the penumbras and emanations of Citizens United are changing the campaign game in ways that throw all previous understandings of how Republicans nominate presidents into a cocked hat.
Republicans nominate presidents in a new way. That would be, as Perlstein puts it, David and Charles Koch convening “one of their dog-and-pony shows, where the aspirants lined up to stand on their hind legs to beg before their would-be masters” – like this weekend in Dana Point, where we weren’t allowed to know the names of the obscure masters with the big money.
Perlstein is not happy with what that means:
To see how consequential the handing over of this kind of power to nonentities like these is, consider the candidates’ liabilities with another constituency once considered relevant in presidential campaigns: voters. Chris Christie’s home state approval rating, alongside his opening of a nearly billion-dollar hole in New Jersey’s budget, is 35 percent. While Christie has only flirted with federal law enforcement, Rick Perry has been indicted. Scott Walker’s approval rating among the people who know him best (besides David Koch) is 41 percent, and only 40 percent of Wisconsinites believe the state is heading in the right direction. Bobby Jindal’s latest approval rating in the Pelican State is 27 percent. Senator Lindsey Graham announced his presidency by all but promising he’d take the country to war; Jeb Bush by telling Americans they need to work more. Rick Santorum not so long ago made political history: he lost his Senate seat by 19 points, an unprecedented feat for a two-term incumbent.
That political facts this blunt are no longer disqualifying for presidential candidates is a sort of revolution. If the winnowing of front-runners from also-rans has traditionally been a financial process (when the money dries up, so do the campaigns) Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas and Macau began tearing up that paradigm in 2012 by shoveling money to Newt Gingrich; $20 million total, including $5 million dispensed on March 23, three days after Gingrich won 8 percent in Illinois’s primary to Mitt Romney’s 47 percent, keeping Gingrich officially in the race more than a week after the RNC declared Romney the presumptive nominee.
Now, four previously unheard of super-PACS supporting Ted Cruz, who has no support among the GOP’s “establishment,” raised $31 million “with virtually no warning over the course of several days beginning Monday.” The New York Times reported this shortly after reporting that “the leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, said she has largely given up hope of reigning in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending.”
The Koch Brothers, you can learn if you take a deep enough dive into the relatively obscure precincts of campaign coverage, are battling to take over a major functions of the Republicans National Committee.
This leaves us in the dark:
And all this, admittedly, gets reported, in bits and pieces. But all this noise doesn’t amount to an ongoing story by which citizens can understand what is actually going on. Not just concerning who might be our next president, but what it all means for the republic. And not just concerning the candidates, but the behind-the-scenes string-pullers whose names, really, should be almost as familiar to us as Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio, and, God forbid, Dr. Carson.
Instead, we get the same old hackneyed horse race – like, did you know that Rick Santorum is in trouble? Only one voter showed up at his June 8 event in Hamlin, Iowa. The Des Moines Register reported that. Politico made sure that Washington knew it – though neither mentioned that Santorum is still doing just fine with the one voter that matters: Foster Friess, the Wyoming financier who gave his super-PAC $6.7 million in 2012, and promises something similar this year. “He has the best chance of winning,” Friess said. “I can’t imagine why anybody would not vote for him.” … And you’d think having people like that picking the people who govern us would all be rather newsworthy.
Well, yes, it would be, but it isn’t, at the moment.
That could change. The Koch Brothers sixty-seven person Republican nominating convention in Dana Point was covered by the press, a bit, even if news organizations were allowed in to cover the event only on the condition that the donors present would not be named without their permission. They still covered it, or mentioned it, or didn’t. They were told that there are things that are none of our business. Go back to your bunk in the forecastle. One day, maybe, news organizations won’t agree. Well see – but Richard Henry Dana, the old-money guy who spent his life sticking up for the little guy with no money, would be outraged – but he’d dead, and he never did like California all that much.