David Brock is the darling of Democratic Party millionaires and billionaires.
Donald Trump’s inauguration has sparked rallies in defense of Medicare and Medicaid, women’s marches across the country, protests against mass deportations and more. Brock, meanwhile, is using the occasion to convene over 100 deep-pocketed Democratic Party donors to a weekend retreat at Miami’s Turnberry Isle resort for a “Democracy Matters 17” conference. It will be three days of strategy sessions to bolster his multimillion-dollar nonprofit political machine.
Brock’s empire, including Media Matters, American Bridge, ShareBlue, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, served as a hit squad for the Clinton campaign last year. Now that Clinton has lost, Brock is retooling his machine to lead the attack on all things Trump. “We really aspire to be like the Kochs,” he explained, referring to the circle of ultra-wealthy right-wing donors convened by the notorious Koch brothers.
Brock, known for his silver pompadour and penchant for high drama, is a controversial figure among Democratic operatives. Nurtured in the netherworld of the far right, Brock was a foot soldier in what Hillary Clinton famously dubbed the “vast right-wing conspiracy” before converting. (He earned his stripes by slurring Anita Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”)
After recanting and changing sides, Brock nevertheless prides himself on being as ruthless and amoral as the operatives on the right, though his act doesn’t fly as well in Democratic circles. During the Democratic primary, Brock declared that “black lives don’t matter to Bernie Sanders” and called on the septuagenarian Sanders to release his medical records in order to cast aspersions on his health.
In the John Podesta e-mails released by WikiLeaks, Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, called him a “menace,” and “shady,” while musing whether he was a “Manchurian candidate of the GOP secretly out to tank [Clinton].” Podesta, chair of the Clinton campaign, suggesting Brock was merely an “unhinged narcissist.”
After months of slurs, Sanders erupted, denouncing Brock and the Clinton campaign for trafficking this dreck: “What the Clinton people do very well which is what modern politics is about is you spin,” Sanders said. “I don’t think you hire scum of the Earth to be on your team just because the other side does it.”
Throughout the campaign, good government groups also criticized Brock’s Correct the Record for trampling federal restrictions on campaign spending by asserting its right to coordinate directly with the Clinton campaign.
Despite his part in Clinton’s failure, Brock is a likely candidate to “monetize the resistance,” as Eric Levitz aptly put it in New York magazine. One reason is what Podesta termed in his e-mails “Brock’s $ Machine.” With Mary Pat Bonner, his fundraiser extraordinaire, Brock has built and run organizations that are hard-hitting and effective—which, in fairness, was not exactly commonplace in liberal circles. “He saw the permanent intellectual and ideological infrastructure they had on the right,” Paul Begala gushed, “and brought it to the left.”
In the run-up to his weekend donor confab, Brock promised to build a complex that would “weaponize” information to savage all things Trump. Media Matters would strafe the press, ShareBlue would be turned into a “Breitbart of the left,” American Bridge would churn out oppo research, and his legal center would bury Trump and appointees in legal suits.
Brock scorned the Democracy Alliance, the original circle of liberal donors that, among other things, helped build Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, as too divorced from electoral politics and partisan combat. “The DA has veered away from politics,” Brock told BuzzFeed. “This conference is openly political.”
Given the fear and loathing of Trump in liberal circles, donors are likely to respond favorably to Brock’s call to the barricades.
What Brock offers is a Faustian bargain: We can win, he promises, but only if you are prepared to shed your scruples, principles and ethics and descend into a back-alley gutter fight with the right. One question when you build a political weapon is who aims the gun. Brock is not a man of the left. His institutions are not grounded in the populist-progressive movement. He’s an agent of the Democratic establishment, funded significantly by its biggest donors.
To provide guidance on strategy and message, his Florida conference will feature among others, Rahm Emanuel, one of the most unpopular mayors in America, as well as resuscitating the likes of Harold Ford Jr. and others from the Wall Street–funded Third Way. That group, after being wrong on virtually everything from the war in Iraq to the attack on public schools, is now planning a multimillion-dollar opinion-research project to teach Democrats how to appeal to workers without alienating bankers.
Brock’s fete will also attract progressives like Senator Jeff Merkley, who has been reaching out to progressive groups, Cecile Richards and Ilyse Hogue and other leaders of women’s groups under assault, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and others. Unity against Trump and the Republican right is the watchword.
But overall his organizations offer no bold policies or agenda. And while Brock’s weaponized politics are highly valued by political operatives, they have yielded mixed results. Sanders opposed Super Pacs and big-money politics. His campaign didn’t pay Internet trolls or run negative ads. He used his integrity to make the case for fundamental change, inspired the young, and came damn close to beating Clinton, who had locked up the big money, the endorsements, the party apparatus, and of course, Brock’s SuperPac apparatus. Trump won after a campaign of insult and outrage. He was supported by the right’s SuperPacs, but gained far more from manipulating the media than Clinton gained by funding Brock’s high-priced complex.
Brock is nobody’s fool. He gets the populist temper of the time. He preceded his confab by publishing a public apology to Bernie Sanders, entitled “Dear Senator Sanders, I’m with you.” He apologized briefly for the “few moments when my drive to put Hillary in the White House led me to take too stiff a jab. I own up to that. I regret it, and I apologize to you and your supporters for it.”
Sanders doesn’t need instruction from David Brock about how to use his bully pulpit. While Brock was gathering his donors, Sanders convinced Democratic senators to lead rallies across the country in defense of Medicare and Medicaid, and reaped widespread media coverage. And while Sanders is all for unity against Trump, he understands that Democrats still have to decide if they stand with the Wall Street wing of the party or work to rebuild a party of working and poor people from the bottom up.
Brock doesn’t need Sanders’s endorsement, although he’d like to have it. He doesn’t need the support of progressive movements or activists, although they’ll be happy to cooperate. The only votes that count are the votes of big-money donors. He’ll gather them this weekend in Florida. They’ll decide how much they will invest in the back-alley politics of our time.