POLITICO’s Kenneth Vogel Goes All This Town on American Politics in Big Money

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 11.52.54In book stores like Kindle and Nook today, find POLITICO Chief Investigative Reporter Kenneth P. Vogel’s latest BIG MONEY: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, which explores the finances behind the American political system.

Similar to Mark Leibovich’s This Town, which exposed DC as the “nexus of big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity,” Vogel explains how just a handful of the rich dominate the political landscape.

On Friday, the POLITICO magazine cover story offered an excerpt from the book.

While we’ve yet to receive our copy (it is en route), the book’s publisher – PublicAffairs – shared with us some of Big Money’s major themes. More on them after the jump.

Major themes from BIG MONEY: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, via PublicAffairs.

Migration of power and money from the parties to the billionaires and their consultants:

“In past elections, most major donors boosted candidates or causes closely aligned with the Democratic or Republican establishments. Now it’s just as likely that the biggest checks will be spent bucking the system. At a time when wealth is increasingly coalescing in the bank accounts of the richest 1 percent of American citizens, members of this mega-donor community—and the consultants who spur them on—are wresting control from the political parties which once combined to rule politics with an iron fist. The parties are losing the ability to pick their candidates and set their agendas, as fewer and fewer politicians are reliant on the financial support of their party to win. In a perverse kind of way, the new system is more democratic, but only for those with the cash to buy in.  In fact, it can be preferable to have the backing of a sugar daddy donor or a group with deeper pockets willing to spend unlimited cash to fight the party.”


Factions of big donors perpetuate gridlock and polarization in Congress:

“As the parties’ ability to enforce discipline through campaign cash and earmarks has diminished, members of Congress have become increasingly beholden to sometimes clashing outside groups, especially on the right. Deep-pocketed tea party groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, as well as its rival FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, pressured the Republican lawmakers they helped elect in 2010 into opposing leadership-brokered deals on fiscal legislation like that to lift the debt ceiling and fund the government, rendering the Republican Party impotent to leverage its House majority.”


Big donors cause chaos in primaries:

“It only took one sugar daddy apiece to allow Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to make a messy and prolonged race out of the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Neither White House hopeful had assembled the basic trappings of a credible presidential campaign, but that doesn’t matter as much in the big-money era. It used to be that a viable campaign meant spending years building lists of small donors, traveling to county fairs, endorsing state legislative candidates, and schmoozing local party chairmen in their Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina living rooms and rec centers. Now, you can be competitive with minimal commitment to retail politicking, as long as you have one billionaire who’s able to write seven- or eight-figure checks.”


Mega-donors are motivated by passion or ego over profit:

“There’s a good bit of overlap between team owners and political donors. Like their fellow 1-percenters playing the political field, it’s usually not enough for sports patrons to merely dole out cash. Many seem almost pathologically compelled to try their hand at managing aspects of the team. It’s as if the newly minted owners are impatient to show that the same acumen they demonstrated in business can be applied to their extracurricular pursuits. But all too often, it can’t. History is rife with examples of sports owners whose meddling has kept their teams mired in chaos near the bottom of the standings. Similarly, the political chaos wrought by the new big-money surge has only emboldened newly powerful mega-donors to dig deeper to try to get their way in the next election.”


The Democratic evolution on big money:

“Until recently, rich Democrats have mostly kept their wallets closed. In 2012, they were sidelined by apathy toward Obama and other party leaders, and by queasiness about the impact of big money on democracy, as well as the failure of their last major big-spending effort in 2004. But the famous “shellacking” they took at the ballot box in the 2010 midterms, combined with assiduous courtship by a motley crew of old Clinton hands and ambitious young operatives, has helped them get over their qualms.”


Democrats actually benefitted from having less big money, but such a dynamic is unlikely to last through 2016.

“Because Democrats had fewer mega-donors in 2012, they were able to more tightly choreograph the big money they were able to raise, avoiding the money-vs.-money demolition derby that smashed up Republicans. Even in the glow of their 2012 victories, though, there were early signs that Democratic unity would be tested, perhaps a bit in 2014, but most acutely in 2016. That’s when Democrats could find themselves facing the same kind of civil war as Republicans have been grappling with. Without the benefit of a sitting president at the top of the ticket, the door will be open for formerly sidelined veterans, rising stars, and dark horses to push their way into the spotlight. And that is when big donors could make a mess of things.”


The empowerment of consultants as a permanent, unaccountable, and very wealthy power base:

“The gusher of checks has sparked a gold rush among Washington’s private political class. All manner of consultants jockey to tap this new cash flow, knowing that all it takes to succeed is the ear of a single donor. Those who rise to the top gain wealth and power, pretty much irrespective of how their candidates fare. Lacking the accountability of a campaign or party who might veto an especially hard-hitting ad or aggressive mailer, the consultants are free to push the bounds of political etiquette – as long as they keep the donors happy.”