Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer and the Right to Free Speech

Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

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Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made the libertarian Koch brothers the centerpiece of his and other Democratic efforts to portray the conservative and Tea Party pushback against the Obama administration’s big-government agenda as nothing less than an “anti-American” conspiracy to defraud the republic, Steyer’s efforts and those of many other wealthy liberals give the lie to these claims. Steyer has been pouring money into Democratic campaigns like it was water in the last few months. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee reported yesterday that it had received $15 million from the billionaire that it, in turn, is distributing to Democrats in battleground races. He also gave $15 million in August.

Democrats say Steyer’s efforts shouldn’t be lumped in with those of the Kochs because the latter are venal while he is principled (though Reid exempts Adelson from his critique so as to avoid his Nevada resident aiming his considerable fortune at his own career). But this is nothing short of slander. As they have consistently demonstrated over the years, the Kochs’ belief in libertarian principles is no less rooted in ideology than Steyer’s belief that the world is melting and must be saved from global warming. Moreover, Koch Industries are so diversified that it is almost impossible to make a coherent argument that any measures they support are likely to make more money for them than they could lose. Moreover, the list of prominent Democratic donors that made money off of crony capitalist “green” deals with the government—of which the Solyndra scam was just the most prominent—undermines any notion that one party has cleaner hands than the other with respect to fundraising.

Liberals also contend that talk about Democratic hypocrisy on campaign finance is silly because it is wrong to ask one party to unilaterally disarm in a tough fight when the other side is deploying major donors who are willing to give millions to advance their cause. They have a point. But what they miss about all this is that their constant complaints about the supposedly disastrous impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is that the bipartisan billionaire competition shows the system is working as it should.

Liberals think even more restrictive campaign-finance laws that would limit the ability of Americans to express their opinions would better serve the country. But that would mean less political speech and less debate about issues and candidates. That would make the mainstream media—to which such restrictions would not apply—even more powerful. It would also help incumbents who are better placed to attract publicity in an environment where challengers would be hard placed to raise enough money to get noticed. Outsiders on both the left and the right would have trouble making their voices heard. But that wouldn’t make the system more democratic.

While many people profess to be disgusted by the importance of money in politics, these scruples ignore the fact that money has, and always will, play a role in elections. The only question is whether we will have laws that protect the right of all Americans to exercise their right to political speech or if we will create one in which a liberal establishment that dominates the media can game the system. Both liberals and conservatives have benefited from Citizens United; the only difference is that liberal big donors pretend to be disgusted by the freedom they are afforded. Steyer’s ideas have as much right to be heard as those of the Kochs or those of the New York Times editorial page. The push to shut down political speech is a thinly veiled effort to manipulate the system. And that is a lot worse than hypocrisy.

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The Fierce Urgency of After the Midterms

The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

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The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

Centrist Democrats who support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline might not get the cold shoulder from green groups this fall. 

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the latest to buck her party’s leaders when she announced this week she supports construction of the pipeline. 

Democrats from conservative states have joined with Republicans in supporting Keystone XL, which they argue would create jobs and improve the country’s energy independence. In addition to Grimes, at least seven other Senate Democratic incumbents or candidates have supported its construction so far. 

But even though green groups have fought tooth and nail to block the oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. over environmental concerns, they aren’t making the issue into a litmus test for Democratic candidates they consider supporting.

Instead, organizations with environmental priorities are weighing Keystone along with other top environmental issues when deciding who to throw their weight behind.

They’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort on treating Keystone as a cause worth fighting for. And the fight has been good for their bottom line. As the New York Times reported back in January, “no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time.” So why wouldn’t they live up to the hype and make this a litmus test issue?

Here’s the justification from the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, as reported by the Hill: “The action fund has made the strategic conclusion in this cycle to focus on climate change, and, specifically, the president’s climate plan.” So Keystone just isn’t much of a “climate change” issue then? On the contrary, says … the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Building the 875-mile northern segment of Keystone XL would lead to a dramatic increase in the carbon pollution that worsens the effects of climate change. Hence, construction of the pipeline fails the all-important carbon test the president laid out in his June 2013 climate address to the nation, when he said Keystone XL’s permit would be approved only if the pipeline “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The dissembling makes it pretty clear just how the environmentalists choose their “litmus tests.” Another clue comes from the indications that President Obama has delayed a decision on Keystone in order to kill the pipeline deal after the midterm elections. That flies in the face of the science on Keystone, which effectively rebuts the greens’ anticommerce propaganda. But it is perfectly synchronous with the demands of Tom Steyer, the billionaire writing large checks to finance Democratic campaigns, especially those who fight Keystone.

Why wouldn’t Steyer demand–since he can, apparently–that the pipeline project get its rejection notice immediately, if it’s truly the right thing to do? Because while that would follow the professed principles of Steyer and others in the environmentalist far-left, it would also make life tougher for embattled Democrats in non-loony states who don’t want to oppose the commonsense job creator Keystone represents. This way, they can run in support of Keystone without suffering any consequences.

Now, you might say, that doesn’t sound quite so principled. Enabling Democrats to run in support of Keystone while plowing money into attacking Republicans because they also support Keystone would appear to elevate partisanship over principle. And aside from Steyer’s business interests, he appears to be mulling a political career of his own, possibly as a candidate for California governor. Initially, he seemed willing to attack Democrats who supported Keystone; as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel noted, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu was, at first, on the list:

Mr. Steyer then spent some quality time with senior Democrats, who presumably explained that the establishment would not look kindly on a would-be governor who blew their control of the Senate. Ms. Landrieu came off the list, and Mr. Steyer has downgraded his criteria for playing in races to whether “something important” is at stake.

Despite the unhinged rhetoric from high-profile Democrats–for example, Harry Reid calling conservative political activism “un-American”–Steyer and the greens are perfectly entitled to participate in the electoral process. It’s just helpful to know that it’s about power and electing Democrats, not the Earth hanging in the balance.

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Steyer’s Payoff and Liberal Hypocrisy

If money is the root of all political evil, can liberal money still be pure? If your name is Tom Steyer, the billionaire liberal environmental extremist, the answer is obvious. Steyer and other liberal donors are cracking the whip on President Obama to ensure that he doesn’t stray off the left-wing reservation even if it means approving a project that would boost the economy and U.S. energy independence. Steyer’s pledge to pour $100 million into the 2014 midterm elections was enough to influence the administration’s decision to stall the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline even though a State Department report debunked the claims that it would damage the environment. But don’t you dare compare Steyer to the conservative donors that are trying to do the same thing on the right.

In a C-Span interview previewed at Politico, Steyer is at pains to try and draw a distinction between his efforts and those of the Koch brothers, the conservatives who have become the centerpiece of liberal talking points this year in an effort to distract voters from the failures of the Obama administration. As far as Steyer is concerned, people who give to conservative causes and candidates just aren’t on the same moral plane as people who share his politics. While the Kochs are playing the same game by the same rules and merely attempting to speak up for their principles, Steyer isn’t willing to extend them the courtesy he demands for his own efforts, even when they constitute nothing less than a bribe to force the president to spike a project that is clearly in the national interest. But in doing so, he is illustrating not only his hypocrisy but also the real cancer that is eating away at the core of the American political system.

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If money is the root of all political evil, can liberal money still be pure? If your name is Tom Steyer, the billionaire liberal environmental extremist, the answer is obvious. Steyer and other liberal donors are cracking the whip on President Obama to ensure that he doesn’t stray off the left-wing reservation even if it means approving a project that would boost the economy and U.S. energy independence. Steyer’s pledge to pour $100 million into the 2014 midterm elections was enough to influence the administration’s decision to stall the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline even though a State Department report debunked the claims that it would damage the environment. But don’t you dare compare Steyer to the conservative donors that are trying to do the same thing on the right.

In a C-Span interview previewed at Politico, Steyer is at pains to try and draw a distinction between his efforts and those of the Koch brothers, the conservatives who have become the centerpiece of liberal talking points this year in an effort to distract voters from the failures of the Obama administration. As far as Steyer is concerned, people who give to conservative causes and candidates just aren’t on the same moral plane as people who share his politics. While the Kochs are playing the same game by the same rules and merely attempting to speak up for their principles, Steyer isn’t willing to extend them the courtesy he demands for his own efforts, even when they constitute nothing less than a bribe to force the president to spike a project that is clearly in the national interest. But in doing so, he is illustrating not only his hypocrisy but also the real cancer that is eating away at the core of the American political system.

Steyer’s self-regard and contempt for the Kochs is blatantly hypocritical, especially since he and the members of the chattering class that share his liberal ideology like to pretend that politics can only be pure once it is purged of money. But while this quote can be merely filed away along with innumerable other instances of left-wing cynicism, it tells us far more about what is wrong with American politics in 2014 than the usual bromides we hear about the baleful influence of the Tea Party. Having invested heavily in the meme that income inequality is the top problem facing the nation, the Democrats have made the Kochs and other conservative donors such as Sheldon Adelson the centerpieces of their current demonization project. But in dismissing the apt comparison between his activities and those of his counterparts on the right, Steyer is not merely demonstrating the kind of chutzpah that perhaps only a billionaire can get away with. Steyer’s comments reflect the basic divide between left and right in that he thinks the difference between the two parties isn’t so much an argument about policy as it is one between good and evil.

From 2008 through President Obama’s successful reelection campaign, Democrats concentrated on demonizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the font of all American political evil. In Obama’s sixth year in office, that well has finally run dry and the president has sought to revive his scandal-plagued second term by substituting conservative big givers like the Kochs and Adelson for Bush And Cheney. Given that even these enormously wealthy men have little ability to influence policy in the age of Obama this is, at best, a stretch even for most liberals who know that their money wasn’t enough to alter the political balance in 2012.

But the defamation campaign aimed at the Kochs is especially tough to swallow once you realize that the Democrats appear to be far more dependent on Steyer and his cohorts than anyone in the GOP is on either the libertarian brothers or Adelson.

Steyer’s attempt to tar the Kochs as self-interested in the interview is easily dismissed. The billionaire brothers are hard-core libertarians and have always opposed all subsidies for business even when they might potentially help any of the enterprises they own. The same goes for Adelson, who has devoted himself to opposing the spread of legal gambling on the Internet even when most of his colleagues in the gaming industry are cheering that prospect. For better or worse, they are ideologues that prize principles even over the potential to reap extra profits via the kind of crony capitalist schemes that have been a hallmark of Obama administration programs.

But by trying to draw a distinction between conservative giving and the ways his money has been used to hammer the administration into opposing a vital project like Keystone, Steyer is demonstrating the contempt for democracy that is at the heart of modern liberalism. For such people, those who oppose their ideology can’t be opposed in a spirit of open and honest debate in which both sides are treated with respect. They must be damned as “un-American” (Reid’s epithet of choice for the Kochs) or lampooned as holding a Las Vegas auction for GOP presidential wannabes (as Adelson was in the last month even though Democratic notables flocked to Steyer’s San Francisco home just weeks earlier). Instead of looking to talk radio or the Tea Party to find the reason why politicians can’t find common ground anymore, pundits would do better to listen to Steyer and fellow liberals to discover the real reason why the partisan divide has become unbridgeable.

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Dems May Regret Steyer’s Keystone Payoff

After a lengthy study of the plans for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the U.S. State Department issued an 11-volume report back in January confirming what most experts had already concluded long before then: the vital project would not damage the environment or increase the rate of carbon pollution. But liberal activists weren’t happy and have used the 90-day automatic review process that followed that report to furiously lobby the administration to stop the construction of the 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast refineries. The key player in that effort was Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental extremist who has pledged to give $100 million to Democratic candidates who do his bidding. Though President Obama has flirted at times with doing the right thing and letting the project proceed, the result of the push from Steyer and the rest of the global warming alarmist crowd was as predictable as it was politically motivated. In a Friday afternoon news dump to guarantee minimal news coverage, the State Department announced that it would indefinitely postpone the decision on approval of Keystone.

Like the numerous delays of implementation of many of the provisions of ObamaCare, the delay in the final decision on Keystone is blatantly political. By putting it off until after this year’s midterm elections, the president is hoping to both assuage left-wing donors who are essential to his party’s waning hopes of holding on to the Senate and to allow vulnerable red-state Democrats to avoid blame for a decision that would hurt the economy and the cause of energy independence. But though this seems like an astute compromise that will allow the president to play both ends against the middle, it is a case of the administration being too clever by half. Far from helping the cause of Democrats like Alaska’s Mark Begich, Colorado’s Mark Udall, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, the Keystone delay has handed Republicans an issue with which they can batter these incumbents. Though liberals like Obama have sought to demonize GOP donors like the Koch brothers for trying to buy votes to advance their libertarian agenda, the Keystone decision is nothing less than a $100 million payoff to Steyer.

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After a lengthy study of the plans for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the U.S. State Department issued an 11-volume report back in January confirming what most experts had already concluded long before then: the vital project would not damage the environment or increase the rate of carbon pollution. But liberal activists weren’t happy and have used the 90-day automatic review process that followed that report to furiously lobby the administration to stop the construction of the 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast refineries. The key player in that effort was Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental extremist who has pledged to give $100 million to Democratic candidates who do his bidding. Though President Obama has flirted at times with doing the right thing and letting the project proceed, the result of the push from Steyer and the rest of the global warming alarmist crowd was as predictable as it was politically motivated. In a Friday afternoon news dump to guarantee minimal news coverage, the State Department announced that it would indefinitely postpone the decision on approval of Keystone.

Like the numerous delays of implementation of many of the provisions of ObamaCare, the delay in the final decision on Keystone is blatantly political. By putting it off until after this year’s midterm elections, the president is hoping to both assuage left-wing donors who are essential to his party’s waning hopes of holding on to the Senate and to allow vulnerable red-state Democrats to avoid blame for a decision that would hurt the economy and the cause of energy independence. But though this seems like an astute compromise that will allow the president to play both ends against the middle, it is a case of the administration being too clever by half. Far from helping the cause of Democrats like Alaska’s Mark Begich, Colorado’s Mark Udall, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, the Keystone delay has handed Republicans an issue with which they can batter these incumbents. Though liberals like Obama have sought to demonize GOP donors like the Koch brothers for trying to buy votes to advance their libertarian agenda, the Keystone decision is nothing less than a $100 million payoff to Steyer.

In her usual role as administration apologist, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was trotted out today on NBC’s Meet the Press to deny that the decision was politically motivated. But like so much of what comes out of Wasserman Schultz’s mouth, that assurance has zero credibility. The bottom line here is that a shovel-ready jobs project that will be good for the American economy and energy independence has been shelved, perhaps forever, because of the Democratic party’s dependence on a small group of environmental extremists with disproportionate financial and political clout.

Keystone critics howl about what they claim will be the negative impact on the environment from Canada’s recovery of oil from the sands of Alberta. But their claims are largely unproved. And, as far as the U.S. is concerned, spiking the pipeline won’t stop Canada from getting the oil out of the ground and shipping it somewhere. The only question is whether the resources will be kept in North America or sent to China or some other place.

Obama’s delays of Keystone are a symptom of an administration that talks about wanting to promote jobs but is far more interested in sweetheart deals like the Solyndra boondoggle than in getting the government out of the way of the private sector on projects that could actually put a lot of people to work. While their focus on alternatives to fossil fuels seems admirable, it actually betrays hostility to economic development and industries like oil refinement and coal that remain essential to the country’s future.

The Keystone delay is also symbolic of the way Obama’s indifference to energy independence has hindered U.S. foreign policy. At a time when European dependence on Russia as well as the Middle East has hampered efforts to defend Ukraine’s independence or to rally the world behind the cause of stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, the administration’s politically-motivated foot-dragging on Keystone is more evidence of how an unwillingness to lead by example has hamstrung Obama.

But the bottom line of the Keystone delay is that for all their talk about the Kochs and the supposedly malevolent forces financing the right, there is no longer any doubt that this administration is far more dependent as well as more in the pocket of men like Steyer than the Republicans are on any single contributor or group. When faced with a choice between Steyer’s $100 million and doing the right thing for both the economy and energy independence, Obama’s decision was never really in doubt. Democrats who think voters are too stupid to make this connection may rue this corrupt and foolish move in November.

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Kochs Shouldn’t Sink to Reid’s Level

I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

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I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

The ad, “Steyer Infection,” juxtaposes Harry Reid’s denunciation of the Koch brothers with a narrative about Reid’s relationship with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his brother Jim, who runs a ratings service for children’s products.

“This is about two very wealthy brothers who intend to buy their own Congress,” it shows Reid saying in a speech earlier this month on the Senate floor. “You see when you make billions of dollars a year, you can be I guess as immoral and dishonest as your money will allow you to be.”​

The narrator says, “Billionaires like Tom Steyer, who just hosted Reid and other Senate Democrats at his San Francisco mansion? Steyer has a history of ‘environmentally destructive business ventures.’ And he wants regulators to strangle energy opportunities here in America, even though he helped finance the second-largest coal company in Indonesia.”

Here’s the ad itself:

Again, it is rational to respond to allegations and to push back on Reid. There’s no question Reid’s a hypocrite, though that’s far from his worst quality. As Johnson’s report notes, the Kochs are apparently being targeted as “out-of-state billionaires” in ads funded in part by Michael Bloomberg–in other words, an out-of-state billionaire. And Reid’s unseemly brand of crony capitalism is certainly worth addressing.

But the Kochs’ ad doesn’t merely explain that Reid accepts support from prominent billionaires while slamming those who are supported by other, conservative billionaires. It turns into an attack ad on the Steyers. If the Kochs and Steyers take this game to its logical conclusion, the airwaves would be blanketed during election season by wealthy philanthropists attacking each other. No thank you.

Such a development would reinforce the notion–pushed by Reid, among others–that what is important in these statewide elections is not who is running for office but who is funding them. It actually embraces the stereotype of politicians as bought-and-paid-for agents of powerful moneyed interests. The Kochs presumably think this is a caricature–otherwise why take it so personally–but this would bring the caricature to life.

The national media’s lack of outrage, with rare notable exceptions, toward Reid’s McCarthyism is certainly dispiriting. The silver lining, I suppose, is that the next time the mainstream papers complain about a lack of civility in American politics the only appropriate response would be to laugh them out of the room. Indeed, the New York Times editorial board even gave its endorsement to this abuse of power. Apparently the problem with Joe McCarthy, in the Times’s estimation, was that he was simply working for the wrong political party.

Nonetheless, two wrongs don’t make a right. The ad attacking the Steyers attempts to prove Reid’s hypocrisy by applying Reid’s own floor speeches to the Steyers’ political and economic activity, implying the path of attack is fair game. Reid’s example is one that should not be followed. It would be quite troublesome if it instead became standard.

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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:

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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.

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