Again and again over the past week, “Real Time” host Bill Maher has reminded journalists and talkshow hosts of just why he wrote a $1 million check to a pro-President Obama SuperPAC: He wanted to “nudge liberals with far fatter pocketbooks,” as he told ABC News.
And while that kind of money may fly in the face of those who support campaign finance reform funding limits — Maher included — it also sends a message to Hollywood: Put aside your tithing of words at the altar of reform, and get a healthy dose of pragmatism, since to unilaterally disarm would be far worse; the donors who have written seven- and eight-figure checks to shape the GOP primary are only a preview of what is to come in a general election.
Indeed, Maher’s donation puts many of Hollywood’s politically active, some of whom have engaged for years in efforts fighting for an overhaul of the campaign finance system, in a quandary. He himself has been a critic of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns via independent committees, and to also spend when it really matters, in the days and weeks before an election.
On a recent “Real Time” before Maher made his donation, Rob Reiner called the flow of money into the election from wealthy people “disgraceful.” Others have been actively involved in trying to mitigate the impact of the Citizens United ruling: Alec Baldwin has trekked to Capitol Hill to champion campaign finance legislation; People for the American Way, the org founded by Norman Lear, has made it a regular part of its agenda.
Political adviser Marge Tabankin says that in many ways, “you have two ‘goods’ running against each other” — the desire to see Obama reelected, and the desire to limit the influence of money in politics. “If you are someone who has spent the last 30 years fighting for every different version of campaign finance reform, you say, ‘How do I do this?’ I get it. I get both sides of it.”
Maher donated to Priorities USA Action, the SuperPAC led by former Obama advisers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, and is joining a group that includes Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave $2 million, and Steven Spielberg, who gave $100,000. But after an initial burst of activity last summer, fundraising slowed considerably, and the hope now is that the Obama reelection campaign’s endorsement of the SuperPAC, with some White House officials expected to help woo potential donors, will increase the pace of giving.
The need to level the playing field with GOP SuperPACs is resonating with some donors, says David Wolf, a fundraiser on the Obama reelection campaign’s finance committee. “The numbers are staggering. It definitely sends a chill through some of the donors I talk to.”
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, which has been fighting the influence of money in politics for 40 years, says that the argument that donors shouldn’t unilaterally disarm within a system they loathe makes strategic sense from a political point of view. “However, that takes us further and further down the hole.”
She doesn’t doubt that some donors may have their best intentions at heart, but what SuperPACs do is “drown out the voices of regular voters.”
Even as many showbiz donors pride themselves for giving to candidates with no strings attached, at least compared with those in other industries, “at an absolute bare minimum, you get an entree into the White House that the average voter will never see in their lifetimes,” Boyle says.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says that “some people will stand on principle and others will be more pragmatic,” and reason that the ends justify the means. She said that those with the wherewithal to write seven-figure checks were a small set of elite donors, and “I doubt most of those folks look to Maher for an example.”
Michael Steele, the former GOP chairman, suggested hypocrisy in the way that donors from the likes of the Koch Brothers and Foster Freiss are perceived and the way that Maher is. He wrote on Politico, “As for Obama, his super PAC will gladly take the money, note the sentiment with a wink and nod, and spend it to beat the crap out of the Republican nominee this fall. So how is that so different from what the Republican nominee will do with the money from his super PAC donors?”
In many ways, the industry has been here before. The 1990s marked the rise of soft money in politics — the unlimited contributions that individuals could give to political parties, rather than candidates, for the rather vague purpose of “party building activities.”
Among the biggest soft money donors were Haim Saban and Steve Bing, who rather famously gave a total of $12 million in 2002 to help build a new headquarters for the Democratic National Committee. The New York Times back then called Saban’s $7 million check “the largest single donation in the history of American politics.”
Both parties exploited soft money, but the escalating arms race for political dollars soured some influential donors in showbiz. When Warren Beatty flirted (at least in the press) with the idea of waging an independent bid for the presidency in 1999, he used the attention as a platform to speak out about money and politics. The Hollywood Womens Political Committee, one of the few industry groups to formally organize the industry’s liberal strength, disbanded in 1997, after the previous year’s election cycle, in part to make a statement about the pace of fund-raising. Tabankin, the org’s executive director, told Variety back then that the system had become “a Stairmaster out of control.”
Post-Citizens United, she has another way of describing today’s system: “The Wild West.”