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Money in Politics: Dems Still Don’t Understand that Issues Matter

In the summer of 2012, heading into the last few months of the presidential election, a Bloomberg story offered a corrective to liberal propaganda about conservative money in politics. It was headlined “Unions Gain Under Citizens United Decision They Seek to Overturn,” and explained that “With many union members living in toss-up states such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, labor’s increased efficiency might make a difference.”

Just how much unions gained from Citizens United has now become clear. But so has the fact that the concentration on Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court struck down unconstitutional limits on political participation, is misleading when trying to understand just how dishonest liberal attacks on campaign donations really are. While the left’s paranoid obsession with the libertarian-leaning Koch brothers has always tended toward the absurd, a recent study of campaign donations going back a quarter-century informed us that:

Six of the top 10 political spenders over the last 25 years are unions, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Emloyees (sic) ($60 million) and the National Education Association ($53 million), the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

The Koch brothers, by comparison, ranked 59th on Open Secrets’ list. The brothers have spent $18 million since 1989, less than 20 percent of what Act Blue has spent since 2004.

That doesn’t mean the Koch brothers and the organizations they support don’t have influence or that unions control elections. Instead, the more important takeaway is about the limits of spending when it comes to trying to convince voters of something they don’t believe or don’t care about.

A case in point is this week’s media blitz about liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, the largest individual donor in 2013. Steyer has decided to throw much more of his money at congressional elections because of his passion for global warming activism. But even Democrats are skeptical of his new effort, and the reason for that skepticism is telling. Politico reports:

Opponents and even some Democrats also question whether Steyer will find broad support for a platform that consists of issues like climate change — traditionally, not a huge vote-getter at the polls — and opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The economy continues to be the top concern for a majority of the American people, and they’re going to want to focus the agenda solely on climate change?” asked Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley said he supports taking steps on climate but isn’t sure how much impact Steyer will have. …

Greens are taking a more optimistic view, welcoming the chance that Steyer will help their side even the score after four years of liberal chafing at the big-spending politics that Citizens United has wrought.

“The bottom line is that we need much more environmentalist money in politics,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski, whose group has worked closely with Steyer. “Our side will never outspend the big polluters in the fossil fuel industry, but we need to make sure our message is heard, and Tom’s increased investments will help make sure that happens.”

It turns out that, money aside, issues actually matter. The country doesn’t care much about Steyer’s apocalyptic visions and probably won’t much appreciate hearing from a billionaire that they have to make financial sacrifices in order to soothe his conscience. The greens want their message to be heard, but Democrats seem to be aware of the danger in this: the greens’ message is one of hysterical prophecies of doom. Democratic politicians can either listen to Steyer or to their actual constituents.

Steyer, then, is setting out to find the answer to the following question: is there enough money in the world to make people care about his agenda? The Politico story frames Steyer’s activism as a challenge to the Kochs, and although it’s an extraordinarily silly and inapt comparison that reveals just how the media’s Koch addiction has disrupted their ability see clearly on these issues, there is still a valuable lesson. Here’s Politico’s framing of Steyer’s battle:

The former hedge fund executive may be pledging to spend $100 million or more to make climate change a prime election issue in 2014 and beyond, but he’s still a long way from matching the conservative empire of Charles and David Koch — a sprawling network of groups whose diverse causes range from attacking Obamacare to opposing incentives for rooftop solar panels.

So is it the money or the issues? They both matter, but let’s ask the question this way: have the Kochs been more successful than Steyer because they, like Steyer, spend lots of money, or because their high-profile causes align with the concerns and opinions of the public far more than those of Steyer?

Steyer’s effort then should really be understood as an attempt to distract the public from the issues they actually care about–which the Kochs address. This is understandable: ObamaCare is a Democratic Party creation that has unleashed personal suffering and economic devastation–and it’s only just getting started. But the lesson may be not that Steyer has to outspend the Kochs but that he should consider listening to the voters before throwing money at them.