Some conservative pundits are a little over-eager to reinforce the racially tinged Republican narratives of election fraud. Take Lawrence Kudlow, host of a CNBC show and writer for National Review. In his column on Friday Kudlow asks, “With the unprecedented budget explosion of means-tested, welfare-related entitlements, does Team Obama think it can buy the election?… I wouldn’t put it past that cynical bunch.”
Kudlow then runs through the numbers showing that some anti-poverty programs have increased their expenditures since 2008. If that strikes you as unremarkable, it should. These programs are means-tested entitlements. The number of poor people increases, so too does the federal government’s expenditure. It happens automatically. And what happened back in 2008? Oh right, President George W. Bush’s catastrophic economic meltdown and ensuing recession. So yes, the number of Medicaid and food stamp beneficiaries has increased, and consequently so has the government’s expenditure on those programs. Kudlow’s complaint is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s misleading and racially coded derogation of Obama as the “food stamp” president.
Surprisingly, Kudlow is intelligent and honest enough to anticipate this counterpoint. And so he writes:
By the way, it’s not just the deep recession and weak recovery that’s driving up these programs. It’s a substantial eligibility [emphasis in original] expansion, which started under George W. Bush, but has gone much further under President Obama…. It is [emphasis in original] redistribution, but it could be vote-buying, too.
Kudlow offers no breakdown of how much of the increase can be explained by eligibility expansion and how much by the recession.
But the bigger problem by far is that Kudlow is alleging unethical or illegal behavior on the president’s part where none exists. To “buy the election” is to cheat and thereby subvert the democratic process. Kudlow throws out this very serious charge with no evidence, or even intellectually honest analysis, with which to support it.
There are two main ways that election-buying occurs: rich people or monied interests determine the results through using their buying power, or parties or campaigns bribe voters. The former is legal and the latter illegal. Hence the common observation that a worse scandal than law-breaking in politics is what is actually allowed.
The first type of election buying is the kind of which Kudlow and other conservatives approve. It is being currently conducted on behalf of Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires. Some are motivated mainly by ideology. For many, it is a business investment: elect Mitt Romney by spending enough of your fortune that ads on his behalf will outnumber those for Obama, and he will save you far more with tax cuts or favorable regulatory decisions.
The paradigmatic vote-buyer is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who outspent his most recent opponent by more than 10 to 1. He is now taking that show on the road, dumping millions of his dollars into congressional races to support “moderate” candidates in both parties.
Kudlow is so unperturbed by this kind of vote-buying that he does not even bother to note that it is not at all what he is talking about. He can rest assured that when he talks of vote-buying, his readers will think only of the kind that they don’t like: the vote-buying conducting by political party machines. In those arrangements, ward heelers pay citizens to vote. Republicans and conservatives have become wildly obsessed with the threat of these and other such vanished practices. Since 2008 they have fixated on the behavior of marginal, ineffectual and mostly defunct organizations such as ACORN and the New Black Panther Party, deluding themselves into thinking that Obama had to have stolen the election because their America would never elect a Kenyan Muslim socialist.
Kudlow is deploying a double dog-whistle: to conservatives “welfare” is code for urban or black, and so is vote-buying. His column is a conservative smear madlib.
Unfortunately for Kudlow, his analysis is as nonsensical as it is absurd. For vote-buying to work, there must be a voting component. That is to say, ward heelers buy votes by saying, “I will give you this money in exchange for your vote.” Obama has not made welfare eligibility contingent upon voting, much less voting for him. Obama has not even bragged that he has spent more on welfare, seeing it apparently as an electoral liability rather than an asset. If Obama’s welfare policy is a vote-buying scheme, then it is a terribly ineffective one. The government’s money is being spent, but Obama is not guaranteed any votes in return.
Of course, Kudlow is not really suggesting bribery on Obama’s part. That’s why it is so disgusting and unethical for Kudlow to throw around the “vote-buying” allegation. He is merely suggesting that Obama calculated that he could win the loyalty of low-income voters through expanding the welfare state. Even if that were true it is not vote-buying. Suppose Obama does win re-election because poor people are motivated to vote to protect their Medicaid benefits. That’s a perfect exercise of democracy, not a subversion of it.
If Kudlow is so concerned about the misuse of government funds to improperly affect the outcome of an election, he should take a look at Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Department of State is running ads incorrectly telling voters they will a photo ID to vote. The only purpose served is to frighten Democrats into staying home because they fear they will not be able to vote.
If Obama is engaged in vote-buying, then every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan would be a vote-buyer as well. Republicans run every four years on a promise to cut taxes. By Kudlow’s standard, that amounts to an anti-democratic effort to purchase votes. “Vote for me,” say Republicans, “and I’ll put more money in your pocket.” This approach to electioneering reached its apotheosis in 2001 when George W. Bush deployed government money to make himself seem like Santa Claus. As Jim Hightower wrote at the time:
First, Bush spent several million of our tax dollars on pre-notification letters mailed to eligible households, telling people what a big favor he had done for [quote] "America's working families," and that they should expect a check soon. Next he flew around he country at our expense to hold photo-op press conferences where he handed out blown-up mock checks of $300 to people, like he was some sort of big, pink, Easter Bunny delivering free candy to everyone. Then the actual checks were mailed, only the Treasury was short of cash due to the economic downturn we're experiencing under Bush, so George had to borrow $28 billion from the Social Security trust fund to cover his shameless political ploy.
Obama put a higher premium on actually generating economic activity than Bush did. So when Obama cut payroll taxes, he did not send a letter. (Informing the public that they just got a lump sum tax rebate often leads them to put the money in the bank. Since you would rather they spend it, it is better to simply remove it from their federal withholding in every paycheck, as Obama did.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to call what Bush did “vote-buying,” because unlike Larry Kudlow I don’t think journalists should level false accusations at the president. But, if one party has tried to use federal policy to buy elections, it’s the GOP.
For more on right-wing conspiracy theories, check out "Where Crazy Conservative Memes are Invented."