Joe Scarborough recently got into quite a huff—and got the Morning Joe crew to huff with him—over Harry Reid’s attacks on David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists who fund dozens of conservative causes and Republican campaigns. Reid had said, rather catchily for him, that Senate Republicans “are addicted to Koch.” The Senate majority leader also said the brothers “have no conscience and are willing to lie” in political ads, and that they’re “un-American” for trying to “buy America.”
Reid said he doesn’t begrudge the Kochs their wealth, but “what is un-American is when shadow billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system and benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent.”
That might sound hyperbolic unless you have followed the long list of ways the Kochs are indeed buying America. For starters, while their Koch Industries is the one of the nation’s largest air polluters, their money is a huge factor in blocking climate change progress and spreading know-nothing denialism; they fund ALEC and its stand-your-ground political agenda; and they’re waging a multimillion-dollar war against the Affordable Care Act, trying to convince young people, through ads like the one with the creepy Uncle Sam gynecologist, that they should be afraid, very afraid of Obamacare. Through innumerable think tanks, PACs, nonprofits and dark-money trap doors, Koch money has formed a veritable “Kochopus” that reaches deep into academia, industry, state legislatures and Congress. (For more, see here and here.)
But what’s really gotten Harry Reid to put up his dukes is that the Koch-funded PAC Americans for Prosperity (AFM) has spent more than $30 million, and counting, on ads attacking Democratic senate candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. To defeat Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for instance, AFM has already dropped $8.2 million on TV, radio and digital ads. As Politico puts it, that’s more “than all Democratic outside groups in every Senate race in the country—combined.” Koch money could easily flip the Senate to a Republican majority, leaving little but presidential vetoes to blunt the GOP House’s politics of cruelty.
Joe Scarborough understandably fumed at the “un-American” charge, but he framed the Koch’s power quite differently.
“Let’s first tell the truth about them and what they do, put some perspective in it,” he said Thursday. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done for cancer research, what they’ve done for the arts, what they have done for education.”
Indeed, you can tell by the way the bros have been slapping their names on cultural institutions that they think they can get their reps fixed wholesale. In New York City alone, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center has become the David H. Koch Theater. As you enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, signs tell you you’re standing on the new David H. Koch Plaza. David Koch’s name had also been elevated by his contributions to WNET, the city’s PBS affiliate. That ended last year, however, when WNET ran an independent documentary critical of him. To placate Koch, they axed a second similar film, but Koch resigned from the board and took his money with him.
But by emphasizing the Kochs’ philanthropy—which, come on, is the least two men worth $40 billion each and tied at number four on the Forbes rich people list, can do—Scarborough was providing exactly what their largesse was intended to produce: praise and a media force field that can deflect political criticism. Not that Joe is terribly adverse to their politics, but the point of his outrage in the Morning Joe banter was to shift focus away from Koch policies to Reid’s breach of polite discourse. Willie Geist said that the “addicted to Koch” line “seems beneath the office.” Former congressman and nominal Democrat Harold Ford sniffed, “There’s no need for that kind of vitriol.” Only Donnie Deutsch got close to the heart of the matter, asking whether the “Koch brothers spending a billion on advertising is good for democracy.”
Training your eyes on an oligarch’s philanthropy and away from what it camouflages is to accept in some way the essential justness of great wealth. As if to second that notion, Governor Chris Christie said at CPAC last week that Reid was “rail[ing] against two American entrepreneurs who have built a business, created jobs, and created wealth and philanthropy in this country. Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating great things in our country.” Some of those great things include millions in donations to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie (still) heads.
Reid’s attacks are part of a larger Democratic pushback, which includes TV spots (see below) and sites like KochAddiction.com and StopTheGreedAgenda. The strategy is transparent: link GOP candidates to the Kochs and make the Kochs into villains.
Creating a visible villain is, of course, a time-honored political activity. The Dems have vilified Newt Gingrich and more recently Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, while the Republicans’ demons include Nancy Pelosi, the Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers. As for “un-American,” a few years ago Glenn Beck falsely portrayed George Soros, the closest big-time funder progressives have to the Kochs, as a Nazi collaborator.
But beyond a bunch of liberals who follow the Koch trail, will voters know or care about what the billionaire brothers do with their money?
Paul Waldman in The American Prospect doubts it. And so far, he says, the Democratic ads aren’t up to the job. In the very busy spot below, running in Michigan, the Koch brothers appear as barely identified ghosts amid a jumble of hard-to-follow words.
For what it’s worth, the things-don’t-go-better-with-Koch message is getting across, at least with focus groups. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told the Times, “Our research has shown pretty clearly that once voters recognize the source of the attacks [on Democratic candidates], they tend to discount them substantially.” Focus groups, he said, had an “overwhelmingly negative” reaction to the Kochs’ political involvement and believed that the Kochs’ “agenda will hurt average people and the undermine the middle class.’”
Billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins might have been only kidding when he said that democracies should be run more like corporations: “You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes.”
But if you pay for enough misleading ads, that is, in effect, what a million bucks can do. And the more the media unthinkingly hail your charitable giving, the more mileage a million dollars will get you.
Read Next: Rand Paul, CPAC rock star