The Mayday PAC and Progressive Politics

September 4, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

Walter Shapiro and Larry Lessig have argued over whether Lawrence Lessig’s Super PAC, Mayday, is poised to claim success in electing its endorsed candidates.  They correctly assume that this measure—electoral impact—may dominate discussion of how well the PAC  performs.  But it is not the only measure. For progressives, who make up the natural constituency for the Mayday reform program, there is the additional question of whether, considering carefully the PAC’s strategy, they should welcome any success it achieves. It is a question of the type of politics represented by Mayday.

The Question of Means

Mayday is a single issue PAC.  It is consumed with the objective of campaign finance reform and it intends to establish its independent spending as the decisive factor in the election of candidates who will vote for campaign finance reform. So it is a “funder-constituent”: it is not made up of constituents defined as residents of the states or districts where it will be active.  Its objective is to win races with a show of financial force—independent spending—and to show that but for the money, the candidate would not have won.  Already, after the Arizona Democratic primary, Professor Lessig is emphasizing the size of Mayday’s expenditures on behalf of the winner, Rubin Gallego: “even though we were in the race for just a couple of weeks, we spent 30% as much was spent in Gallego’s whole campaign.”

To this the PAC will answer that it will have established only the persuasive force of the argument for campaign finance reform. On this point, however, the reform argument is trapped by its own past claims and rhetoric.

For years, reform advocates have insisted that heavy political spending does not reflect so much as it distorts the function of elections in reflecting voter choice. It inhibits true deliberation, and reform proposals have typically included initiatives to curb negative advertising and to establish other mechanisms for rational deliberation, such as different means of inducing candidates to accept debates. So there is no reason to believe that Mayday PAC’s 30-second ads are substantively superior to others: it will strike the impartial observer that these ads don’t seem to advance an appreciably richer argument than the run-of-the-mill variety. So the outcome of the PAC’s efforts cannot somehow represent a triumph of persuasive argument about reform if, on all other issues, this same type of spending and advertising is so tenuously related to rational deliberation.

Moreover, if Mayday establishes itself as the decisive voice in the election of its candidates, the PAC, like any single-issue PAC, expects the victors to perform on their commitment and enact a version of public financing. The politician elected by the funder enters into a relationship to the Lessig PAC—the funder-constituent—that necessarily limits her political flexibility. To have earned the PAC’s support, a candidate will have had to co-sponsor “or committed to cosponsor” reform legislation. She is less free to modify or even abandon the core commitment to the Mayday reform program to account for political realities or pressures, or to put this issue aside in favor of others as political circumstances require to achieve other, progressive policy priorities.

Of course, this is the result the funders want—bang for the buck, and no excuses. By Mayday’ calculation, the candidates it supports will have been elected for this reason.

Professor Lessig is not alone among reform advocates in championing this brand of single issue politics and discounting the costs. The New York Times recently championed this strategy in declining to endorse Gov. Cuomo. Its editorial on this point could not be clearer about the unequivocal focus it wishes to have placed on the governor’s record on political reform issues. He is commended, for example, for successes in his first term in advancing gay rights, successfully moving gun-control legislation, presiding over the achievement of balanced budgets, and successfully leading on increases in statewide employment and in the minimum wage. The Times takes all of these to be all fine in their way but not sufficient on the whole to compensate for his failures on campaign finance reform.

The Times rejects Cuomo’s defense that his Commission accomplished much of what it set out to do—“roughly nine of 10 goals”—and that it supplied him with “leverage” in moving an ethics bill to passage, after which he moved to other priorities.  This is not because the Times objects to horse-trading, having recently defended Gov.’s Perry’s “horse trading”  toward his of goal of changing the leadership of the Travis County DA office.   But Perry was not trading away an item on The Times’ political reform agenda and he was OK; Cuomo did not get all the reform The Times believes to be necessary—not the “10 out of 10,” which happens to be pubic financing—and so he is not OK.

For Professor Lessig and for The Times, the accomplishment of this reform objective is “the thing,” that which is far and away most important. The Times actually concedes that “issues like campaign finance rarely have been a strong motivator for most voters.”  But most progressive  voters are, of course, moved by gay rights and gun control and more jobs and minimum wage protections, as are a good number of other voters on one or more of these same issues—but The Times would have them all do without, if the price is a lost opportunity for campaign finance reform.

The Question of the Ends

To win the reform battle, Mayday’s leadership is prepared to risk other major components of the progressive governing program. It will take its allies, just on this issue, where it finds them. In New Hampshire, for example, the PAC supports Jim Rubens, who is committed to public financing but also to:

  • The repeal of the Affordable Care Act;
  • The defeat of comprehensive immigration policy; and
  • The promotion of a Second Amendment gun rights agenda that has earned him warm (“A” rating) NRA approval.

Of course, not all progressives are or should be alike, and a candidate can maintain progressive credentials and deviate from the direction of progressive thinking on particular issues. Here, however, only campaign finance reform puts Jim Rubens within shouting distance of progressive politics. And Rubens is only one example, Walter Jones of North Carolina being another: a Mayday endorsee who has encouraged discussion of the President’s impeachment.

So what Professor Lessig is proposing is a single-issue brand of politics that pursues its goal at a considerable cost in means and ends. It relies on money to achieve its goal; it insists that all other policy objectives should be subordinated to it; and it aims to be the decisive factor in the election of candidates who have tacked campaign finance reform onto platforms consisting of the repeal of health care reform, opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, support for NRA gun rights policies, and serious discussion of impeachment as a means of expressing opposition to the policies of the current administration.

Understanding that progressives may be disturbed at least by the use of a Super PAC to bring about campaign finance reform, Professor Lessig and his associates have invited them to “embrace the irony.” They are being asked to embrace a good bit more than that, and they will have to swallow hard.


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