Thursday, June 26, 2008

Getting in Bed with Bundlers

June 26, 2008, 7:30 a.m., 9:20 a.m. (addition of George Carlin routine)

The Bundling Business

The online includes the following definition for "bundling":

(esp. of sweethearts during courtship in early New England) to lie in the same bed while fully clothed, as for privacy and warmth in a house where an entire family shared one room with a fireplace.
Indeed, when I was growing up that's the only definition I knew for the word, aside from "a bundle of sticks." There were even "bundle boards" that could be put in beds to further separate the couple.

In today's politics the word means pretty much the same thing -- except the couples are naked and there's no bundle board.

In order to prevent the appearance that PACs, corporations, CEOs, and their lawyers and lobbyists are obtaining untoward influence with elected officials by way of exorbitant campaign contributions, "bundlers" have taken their place. (As the Times editorializes this morning, see below, whether the headline writer chose the words deliberately or not, the candidates are "Snuggling Up to the Bundlers.")

For example, the board of directors of a corporation wishing to influence a president, or senator with the power to affect the corporation's bottom line, might vote to give all of the company's top executives big raises. Thereafter, an individual known to be the designated bundler pays a call on each of them with the request they write out a check for the maximum legal amount ($2300) payable to the candidate's campaign. With 100 executives, that means that (in effect) the corporation is able to send its bundler to a meeting with the candidate, offer him or her $230,000, and remind them where it is coming from. (The same process works with contributions from an industry as distinguished from an individual company -- or for any influence-seeking individual with enough wealthy friends to put him or herself on the team of $100,000 to $1,000,000 bundlers.)

The candidate can honestly say that he or she is not accepting money from PACs, corporations, or lobbyists; their only contributors are individual supporters. But the assertion is a little deceiving, as the Times editorializes this morning:

In his self-serving retreat from the spending restraints of public financing, Senator Barack Obama hailed his formidable Internet army of small donors as “a new kind of politics.” Maybe so. But just in case, the senator is not about to neglect the old politics of special-interest money bundlers in his presidential campaign.

Senator Obama is scheduled to meet Thursday with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and her platinum card money raisers. One group specialized in amassing $250,000 packages for the campaign, while another excelled at hitting $1 million jackpots.

Now that Mr. Obama has forsworn the public spending limits that he initially pledged to defend, campaign aides have great expectations for Mrs. Clinton’s bundlers. If Mr. Obama woos and wows them, his aides hope they can generate an extra $75 million in private donations for the Obama campaign in coming weeks.

In Vegas, that’s called covering the board — continuing to work the 1.5 million small-bet donors who helped Mr. Obama set grass-roots records, while attending to the political high rollers, too.

Senator Clinton has her own practical interests for this meeting. Mr. Obama is offering to help her with the $22 million she owes after her campaign went bust.

In real-world politics, none of this is a surprise. But in ideal politics — the realm Mr. Obama often purports to speak for — the meeting could mean another coffin nail for public financing. Senator Obama should at least pledge to make the updating of the public subsidy system a top priority of his first year in the White House.

Senator John McCain — who is also vying for the mantle of reformer in chief — is opting for the public subsidies that begin after the conventions. In the meantime, he is relying on his own flock of special-interest bundlers to raise all the private funds he can.

The voters should not be fooled. They must demand that both candidates explain how they will reform the campaign-finance system so no future candidate has any excuse for going into hock to the bundlers and their special-interest donors.

Editorial, "Snuggling Up to the Bundlers,"
New York Times, June 26, 2008.

Senator Obama's spin team argue that his flip-flop on public financing of campaigns is of little consequence. After all, they say, he's created an alternative system of public finance: his 1.6 million contributors have removed the special interests' big money, and influence, from campaigns. So what's the big deal?

But the New York Times' concern is shared by Fred Wertheimer, once President of the campaign finance reform group Common Cause who now heads Democracy 21. His Web site carried an article on the subject last September. And here is an excerpt from the NPR story quoting him last Friday:

Obama will be the first candidate of either party ever to turn down public money for the fall campaign. He's counting on his new, Internet-driven strategies for raising cash.

"We've won the Democratic nomination by relying on ordinary people coming together to achieve extraordinary things," he told supporters in a video Thursday.

That's true of Obama's 1.5 million donors today. But Fred Wertheimer, head of the watchdog group Democracy 21, says it didn't start out that way.

In 2007, when Sen. Obama was raising the money that was essential for him to become a serious candidate, "54 percent of his contributions came in contributions of a thousand dollars or more, and much of that money was raised by bundlers," he says

Bundlers are people who solicit friends and colleagues for checks that they bundle for delivery to the campaign. Wertheimer says Obama wouldn't be where he is without them.

"He has not created a parallel system of public financing," he says.
Peter Overby, "Obama Puts Faith in Army of Individual Donors," NPR Morning Edition, June 20, 2008; and see,
"Effectiveness of Key 'Bundling' Disclosure Provision in New Lobbying Disclosure Law Depends on FEC Implementation," Democracy 21, September 20, 2007.

Ironically, the article notes that not only did Obama support public financing before he decided not to, he and Senator Russ Feingold actually sponsored legislation to prevent what he subsequently decided to go ahead and do.

For balance, let me make clear that what Senator John McCain did (accept public financing for purposes of getting a bank loan, and then, once the bank loan was obtained, reject public financing) is even worse, and as the Times notes he's as deeply indebted to the bundlers and those for whom they speak as Obama -- and probably much more so.

Hillary's Debt. There's a lot at least bizarre, and even troubling, about Senator Obama's efforts to help Senator Clinton pay off her debt.

(1) It makes it look like her support is being bought. Coupled with President Bill Clinton's (a) 17-day-delayed, (b) very limp, (c) "support" of Obama, (d) not even spoken by him, but offered only through a "spokesperson, I don't think it reflects favorably on any of them.

(2) It's kind of like people who repeatedly rebuild on floodplains asking the taxpayers to either buy their houses or help them rebuild. (a) Virtually all independent political observers acknowledge that Clinton's campaign was very poorly managed when it came to expenditures -- among other things. (b) Much of her debt was a result of continuing her campaign way beyond the time when it made any real sense to do so. That's something she had a perfect right to do; that's not the issue; the issue is whether it is now anyone's responsibility but hers to pay for the added costs, and now debt, that those decisions created. (c) Why is she more entitled to this "bailout" from donors than a mis-managed corporation is entitled to a bailout from taxpayers?

(3) The distinctions between the "debt" to herself (and her husband) and the debt to third parties is bogus (though legally significant). Money is fungible; money is money. It's like someone asking you to borrow $2000 for an "emergency" transmission repair because, after all, they "have to get to work," when they've just spent $3000 on an ocean cruise. Your $2000 loan goes into a pot and can as well be thought of as paying for two-thirds of the cruise as for the entirety of the transmission repair. She has an ability to raise on her own some fixed amount of money; to the extent others pay off the third-party debt they have enabled her to keep more of what she can raise on her own as a "repayment" of the debt she owes herself.

Why I'm Supporting Obama My interest in Michelle and Senator Barack Obama goes well beyond his simply winning the election in November. It is mostly focused on what he does with the presidency thereafter. I point up problems that I see at this time because after the election it's really too late.

We know what he's asking of us: money, and enthusiastic political activist support.

And the bundlers have made clear to him what it is they are asking for in return for their support.

[After writing this morning I was looking through State29's tribute to George Carlin, who he says provided some inspiration for State29's standard of "insightfully vulgar" commentary, and came upon this video of one of Carlin's routines. If you find Carlin's version of "insightfully vulgar" to be offensive I'd urge you to skip it. Otherwise, I find it a much more effective, sharp and to the point, way of putting what I'm trying to say. Start at 1:30 into the routine and run to the end. Enjoy.]

If Senator Obama's 1.6 million non-bundling supporters are simply taken for granted, if we follow him like lemmings to the sea -- only then to discover that he cannot walk on water after all -- if we let him take our votes for granted, it is only the bundlers whose wishes will be granted.

I believe his supporters need to make clear to him, now, what it is we are asking of him: Why it is we care about FISA, letting phone companies off the hook when they spy on us illegally, the inequities of NAFTA, public financing of campaigns, restrictions on bundling, universal single-payer health care, getting our troops out of Iraq -- whatever is important to you. I want his political courage, his leadership, in pushing the politically difficult causes that require him to take, and hold, a stand -- including when he needs to take a stand against the interests of his bundlers.

I am perfectly capable of performing a cheerleader's role with regard to Obama. But I don't think he needs that; he's demonstrated a very, very impressive ability to produce plenty of that.

What I think the campaign needs is to be reminded of the price it pays as it veers towards the center, and the right, and abandons those changes "we can believe in," and with them the enthusiasm of those who were attracted to what they thought really was something different in American politics.

Some 80% of Americans think our country is on the wrong track. Scarcely more than 20% identify themselves as Republicans. President Bush's approval ratings are below 30%.

And yet, in most recent polls, Obama leads McCain by no more than 3-6%. (The Newsweek poll is an outlier at 15%.) This election is Obama's to lose. And he could lose it. It will not be a slam dunk. The points I, and others, are raising should be taken seriously, not dismissed as "opposition" when they are, in fact, the strongest form of support.

Do I Criticize McCain?

So why don't I criticize McCain? I have and I do.

But for the same reason parents take more interest in optimizing the behavior of their own children than that of the neighbors' children, I have little interest at this point in time in helping McCain win his election.

I was criticized recently for not "beating up on McSame." Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat," June 24. Here's what I replied:

I am certainly not a McCain supporter, and while I would not consider the things I've written about him as "beating up on" him I rather imagine he might.

At one point both Clinton and Obama supporters were saying that if their candidate did not receive the nomination they were going to vote for McCain. Among my responses was Nicholas Johnson, "Before You Actually Vote for McCain," April 30, 2008. In it I noted how the media were holding Obama and McCain to different standards. I discussed, and linked to, stories regarding his "anger problem." I included excerpts from's well documented "10 Things You Should Know About John McCain but Probably Don't." And I had excerpts from Harold Meyerson's hilarious but scary "McCain on the Red Phone."

I can't know if the author of the comment would find that an adequate response to "Why not beat up on McSame? That would serve the country better." But it comes about as close as anything I'm likely to write.
What Happened to "Promises We Can Believe In"? The blog entry that brought forth the critical comment was Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008. Now I would never suggest that any blog entry of mine would even be read by an Obama campaign worker, let alone influence a change in the campaign's direction. In fact, the change I'm about to note may well have been in place before that entry was written.

But I did notice in a televised news item yesterday that the sign on the front of Senator Obama's podium no longer offered "change we can believe in." It now merely represents that the change he promises is "change that works for you." Here's the video. "Barack 'Confident,'" ABC World News, June 25, 2008.

The candidate and his campaign are to be commended for the candor represented by the retirement of "change we can believe in." But its replacement is still, at this point in time, in need of the same verification as its predecessor.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It used to be, that when you bought a politician, the son of a bitch stayed bought!