My new "Think Again" column is called "The End of Newspapers and the Decline of Democracy."
Though I was shocked to see it at first, I supposed it should have come as no surprise to me that Judith Miller is at least as discerning a theater critic as she is when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and Bush administration lies, deception and folly. Her pan of Mike Nichols’ revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffmann, is one of the most wrong-headed pieces of prose I’ve read since her parroting of Dick Cheney’s nonsense about yellowcake uranium, though to be fair, few people are likely to die as a result. More optimistically, few people are likely to do anything at all as a result, given the deservedly unreserved raves the production received in New York and The New Yorker. I vaguely recall seeing both the George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman versions of the play and while it was too long ago for me to make any sensible comparison, I can hardly remember being so riveted (often painfully so) by any performance anywhere as watching this magnificent play. Much of it is cliché today, but here is where the cliché was invented and, seen in context, these clichés take on added power for the truths they reveal about life in a capitalist country and what it does to men. I actually left the theater speechless and since I saw it just before opening night, I sent a few emails out to friends suggesting that they buy the tickets before the reviews came out; even friends who lived out of town. Hoffman’s performance is one for the ages, but the rest of the cast has the right combination of explosiveness and tenderness you’d want in this play. I’ve been writing about Arthur Miller for my next book, but I’ve never “felt” the power of what made his reputation live so long and travel so far and wide until I saw Nichols’ Salesman.
And while we’re on the subject of Miller, my friends at the Library of America have just released volume II of his collected works. Not many people sit down and read plays but Miller’s later works are useful exceptions to this rule. Not many people ended up seeing Miller’s works after the big four (All My Sons, Salesman, The Crucible and View from the Bridge) and now’s your chance to see what you missed. Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964-1982 (Library of America)
I also want to mention the terrific and completely crazy evening I spent at 92Y for the Friars’ Club celebration of Jerry Lewis’ 86th birthday. What an amazing guy. I have never seen anyone so needy and so mean (often at the same time) to his audience. But you can’t, nor should you wish to deny his genius. So thanks to the folks at the Y for that. (The evening began with Richard Belzer crooning, “Barechu es adoni homoverah.”) Read all about it, here. Oh and last night, I saw Nathan Englander and Joshua Foer discuss their new New American Haggadah, published by Little Brown. I am an enormous fan of Englander’s and strongly recommend the audio version of his new short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I’m looking forward to using the Haggadah.
Now here’s Reed:
Citizens United Blowback: How the GOP’s Super PAC addiction is helping Obama’s reelection chances
by Reed Richardson
Give someone enough rope and they’ll hang themselves, goes the old saying, and the 2012 election may prove that the same is true when it comes to money in politics. Indeed, the easy-money political climate ushered in by the Citizens United case two years ago just may turn out to be the undoing of the Republican Party’s chances against Obama this November.
This is not to say, however, that because there exists a potential silver lining to the Supreme Court’s radical decision, liberals should find anything to cheer about it. Make no mistake, Citizens United undermined our democracy and, as a large majority of the public agrees, the inequality it unleashed on our political system should not stand.
Perhaps the most well known symbol of this glaring inequality is the Super PAC. By allowing a few wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited amounts of cash into our political system, these so-called independent entities can unfairly skew our national discourse and buoy candidates that enjoy little public support. And since this is the first full election cycle where they’ve been in place (only a few existed by the 2010 midterms), it’s instructive to see how their presence has impacted the Republican primary process.
Here’s what might come as a surprise: the first, full-fledged presidential primary campaign of the Super PAC era has been accompanied by a big drop in overall spending. Of course, the increased number of primary debates and cable-TV platforms—and all that free media exposure they provided—no doubt contributed to this decline in spending. But I’d submit that the rise of Super PACs have as well.
Fundraising is one of the toughest tasks for any political candidate. So, encountering a new political environment, one where a campaign’s stalking horse PAC can quickly and easily bring in millions of dollars from just a few generous benefactors, can make the hard work of cobbling together thousands of small-dollar donors seem like a wasted effort. In fact, Super PAC spending now represents a sizable chunk of the Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich campaigns’ advocacy efforts, as this Open Secrets report shows. (In Gingrich’s extreme case, Super PAC expenditures on his behalf have dwarfed official spending, and through February, nearly half of this outside money came from a single individual, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.) So, though there's been less money spent, what has been spent is even more concentrated among donors that are rich and powerful.
To be sure, one could argue that the Republican field’s depressed level of official fundraising is also a function of an unenthusiastic primary electorate. (And substantially lower primary turnout than four years ago would go a long way in making that case.) But there’s something else at work here and, again, I believe it’s an unintended consequence of the rise of Super PACs in our politics.
What little rules there are regarding Super PACs involve the prohibition of any ‘coordination’ between these groups and a candidate’s official campaign. As a result, all those everyday, nuts-and-bolts aspects of a campaign—location scouting, event staging, staff transportation, phone banking, GOTV efforts—become de facto forbidden activities for Super PACs. The most notable campaign expenditure that’s left, something that can be easily scheduled ahead of time simply by looking at the calendar, is obvious: campaign advertising. And so it’s no shock to learn that the Republican Super PACs have spent most of their money on just that. (And of that campaign ad spending, a majority has been spent on tearing down the primary opposition, as this Slate interactive guide shows.)
Rather than treat the millions of dollars of Super PAC-funded TV advertising as but one tool in their campaign toolbox, however, it’s becoming clear that the Republican candidates are instead relying upon it as a crutch, an inexpensive proxy for actually building out a campaign. As Nate Silver of the New York Times’ Five Thirty Eight blog noted last month:
The ‘super PACs,’ however, have spent almost all of their money on television advertising — much of it negative — leaving candidates without the robust organizational infrastructures that the Democrats built in 2008 or Mr. Bush did in 2000. Although Mr. Romney’s ‘ground game’ is strong compared with that of his rivals, it is fairly weak by historical standards, with his campaign generally establishing just one field office in each major state, according to his campaign Web site.
How weak are we talking, historically? Well, Romney’s single field office in New Hampshire this year compares to the 16 opened by Hillary Clinton four years ago when she won that state’s Democratic primary. (Obama and John Edwards had 16 and 19 offices there, respectively.) As the 2012 primary calendar has progressed, Romney’s shortchanging of infrastructure has only grown, as his campaign has become increasingly reliant on an electoral strategy of ‘carpet bombing’ each state with negative ads to eke out a narrow victory, only to then abandon it just as quickly. This excellent National Journal article from earlier this month, worth reading in its entirety, peels back the lid on all this ephemeral spending to demonstrate just how little Romney and the Republican Party are getting for their money and how well positioned Obama is in comparison.
[T]he Republican primary so far has largely resembled a traveling road show. Candidates hurriedly establish a presence in the state next to vote before packing up and moving to the following one, leaving the Obama campaign with the run of the place. Obama has eight campaign offices in Iowa, eight in New Hampshire, three in Nevada, and 12 in Florida. The campaign also has six sites in Wisconsin, a state the Republican candidates have thought little about because it doesn’t hold its primary until April 3.
Romney’s failure to organize on the ground level at this stage of the election cycle is partly a function of the circumstances of the 2012 campaign, which has unfolded in strikingly different ways from the 2008 Democratic primary.
It’s not just the easy money that’s undermining Romney’s chances to win a general election against Obama, it’s also the relatively weak campaign opposition that he’s only barely beating.
Case in point, Newt Gingrich, who spent much of last summer on a five-star, vanity book promotion tour thinly disguised as a presidential run. (Who can forget his July pledge to fly commercial after his debt-ridden campaign divulged it had spent $500,000 ferrying him on private jets owned by the metaphorically prescient Moby Dick Airways?) His fortunes only improved once the GOP primary’s Ring Cycle of debates got into full swing later that fall and by December he (briefly) claimed the mantle of frontrunner largely because of his performances therein. But as far as campaign infrastructure goes, Gingrich’s belated rise in the polls left him woefully unprepared to do battle in Iowa, leaving him all that more vulnerable to the negative ad blitz Romney’s Super PAC unleashed on him in the days before the caucuses.
Still, Gingrich’s brief flirtation with running a serious presidential campaign, even after his South Carolina primary victory in late January, didn’t last long. His evanescent political success began a precipitous downfall at around the same time—naturally—that the televised debates ended. Now, he’s back to spending money as fast as he can just to keep alive a self-serving twilight campaign (and, according to his February FEC filing, shelling out $75,000 to fly Moby Dick Airways again). Indeed, at this point, he’s all but hustling donors for vacation money—a Politico reporter covering the Gingrich campaign this week noted its lack of outreach to, well, not just registered voters, but humans: “A lifelong animal lover, the former speaker has been scheduling more time at zoos.”
As disorganized and dishonest as Gingrich’s campaign is, though, Rick Santorum’s may be even more so. Just three weeks ago, The New Republic characterized his campaign thusly: “By any conventional measure, there is no Santorum campaign beyond his allied Super PAC and the bare infrastructure that makes his TV ads. Otherwise, it’s just the candidate winging it.” Since then, Santorum has, at least, opened a national campaign office, but his campaign remains so bereft of paid staff that he heavily recruits volunteers to phone bank from their personal homes (as does Romney). Sure he’s scored primary victories in Iowa, thanks to a dogged retail politics strategy that can’t be repeated, and in the South, where his culture war message resonates with evangelicals, but none of this is translatable into any kind of follow-on, general election strategy.
That leaves Mitt, still facing off against two tomato cans for opponents (and one can of corn in Ron Paul). After Romney’s victory in Illinois Tuesday, his Super PAC showed little signs of letting up on its mission, as it reloaded for TV aerial bombardments in Louisiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin. But leaning on his Super PAC so heavily has finally begun to take its toll, apparently, as last month Romney’s own neglected campaign coffers spent money faster than it took it in. Still, even this renewed emphasis on the part of Romney may suffer from a sort of Super PAC hangover effect, since big donors have been courted much more consistently than grassroots supporters throughout his campaign, as the National Journal story details:
Romney’s small-donor fundraising is weak not only in comparison with his Republican rivals and Obama but also by historical standards, said [Campaign Finance Institute] President Michael Malbin.
‘It’s not the only metric for measuring grassroots strength, but it tells you what kind of campaign they are running,’ he said. ‘Governor Romney’s campaign is mostly funded by people who write large checks. He’s not mobilizing the base as he competes for the nomination, though on the day he becomes the presumptive nominee, the entire situation will change.’
Count me somewhat skeptical about that last assertion. Romney’s wins have primarily come in spite of, not because of, the support of the party’s most conservative—read passionate—supporters. But even if Republicans of all stripes do enthusiastically rally round Romney by this summer, his campaign’s strategy of favoring Super PACs over the grassroots will leave it months behind the president in terms of building out a crucial ground game in closely fought states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. Plus, the remaining primary calendar does Romney no favors, forcing him to mostly fight over negligible turf, as only six of the final 24 contests (Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, and New Mexico) are in what were considered swing states in 2008.
This all redounds to Obama’s favor come November, as well as our democracy’s. Because as important as November’s vote will be with regard to major issues like the economy, health care, reproductive rights, and the social safety net, Obama’s reelection could also prove to be the spark that eventually reverses one of the most corrosive distortions of our political discourse.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the state of newspaper media organizations in the United States. Sadly, as most are so enamored with "digital media", few people know that it is traditional media that does essentially all the reporting on issues. However, I would counsel you to take heart at a bit of information that the financial media seems not to recognize. If you burrow, or even scratch a bit at the financial statements at the New York Times Company, you will see that the New York Times Paper has actually been growing revenue for 2 quarters now, year over year. All of this growth has come from "circulation" (i.e. paywall) and has outpaced the rate of decline in advertising. Therefore, even though the larger NYT holding company is shrinking, the NYT paper is growing again after many years. That paper is essentially saved. As paywalls get put up in Boston and the International Herald Tribune, I think we will see revenue growth at the larger holding company within a year, maybe two. As for the wonderful NYT, take heart!!
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