Modern elections may have turned Democratic candidates into “telemarketers” and Republicans into SuperPAC-men, but U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy had good news for a national gathering of good-government geeks in New Haven Monday: the web is returning fundraising power back to the little guy.
Murphy offered that ray of hope at the start of a day-long “Purchasing Power: Money, Politics and Inequality” confab organized at the Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center on Prospect Street by Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies.
The conference drew leading lights from think tanks and clean-elections advocacy groups ranging from the Center for Responsive Politics and Sunlight Foundation to the Harvard Kennedy School and MacArthur Foundation. Reporters representing outlets from from the National Review to the New Republic and Atlantic were in force, too.
Murphy, a first-term Democrat representing Connecticut, arrived in town Monday after returning from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey, where he met with refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war. He said that trip left him as broken-hearted as ever over the human suffering there—as well as skeptical about the utility of U.S. military intervention. (Click on the play arrow to the above video to watch him discuss the subject, and the need for “subtlety” in American foreign policy.)
Murphy also brought home a useful perspective for American policy wonks legitimately fretting over the impact of Big Money on American elections and democracy.
He noted that Pakistan is at the tail end of its own election campaign.
“They’re worried about their candidates surviving the last seven days, let alone who pays for it,” he reported. He said, America, by contrast, has a problem it can fix.
That said, Murphy said he has become not just a supporter but “a revolutionary” in favor of campaign finance reform after running for office against a Republican candidate (Linda McMahon) who spent some $100 million over two election cycles trying to buy a seat; and then watching how special-interest money skewed policymaking in the Senate on issues like gun control.
His role in New Haven Monday was to describe the problem from personal experience, he said. Before he left, he touched on possible fixes—and fielded a gentle challenge from the floor.
Telemarketers & Super PAC-men
Murphy spoke of how he learned upon his first run for U.S. Congress in 2005 that he’d have to spend 4 to 6 hours a day on the phone dialing rich people and begging for money.
“The one question you have to ask when you’re deciding if you want to run for the United States House or the United State Senate is: Are you willing to become a telemarketer for 24 months? Are you really willing to sit on the phone and ask your friends and—just slightly worse than that—absolute strangers to give you thousands of dollars to run for office? I will tell you how awful this is.”
As a result, many talented people don’t run for office or else leave when they’re in their prime, Murphy said. And the country risks getting the wrong people for the job: “The skill of telemarketing does not translate very often to the skill of governing. So there are real implications for the type of people you get on the other end.”
The telemarketing requirement remains true for Democrats in 2013, he said. Not as much for Republicans. Now, because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door to unlimited (and often anonymous) corporate or other contributions through so-called “Super-PACs” (or political action committees), Republicans often know they’ll get the millions they need from that source, Murphy said.
The Web Revolution
Meanwhile, the possibility for “crowdsourced” fundraising over the Internet in some cases is returning influence to people who make too little money for Democratic candidates to telemarket and who make way too little money to take part in SuperPACs, in Murphy’s view.
In his 2012 Senate race, Murphy raised 40 percent of his $10 million from small donors over the Internet, he said. That meant that overall his average contribution came out to under $100. He grew his email list of potential contributors from 5,000 to over 100,000 names.
If he runs for reelection in 2018, Murphy said, and if he continues growing that list, he could conceivably raise two-thirds to three-quarters of his money from small donors. Writ large across all races, that phenomenon has the potential to counterbalance the influence of the SuperPACs and groups like the drug industry and the National Rifle Association on policy debates, he argued.
Ezra Klein (pictured above), the Washington Post political writer and MSNBC pundit, wasn’t convinced.
Doesn’t much of that non-corporate money collected over the Internet still come from “party activists who want to pull you to the left, to the right,” or in the direction of their own special interest? Klein asked Murphy.
“If it all moved to Internet fundraising tomorrow and you didn’t have to take any of the corporate money, would we have fixed the problem?” Klein continued. “Or will we have just created a sharp new problem?”
We will have reached a “temporary salve” to the problem of one-sided influence of big money on elections and policy, said Murphy (pictured). But he agreed with Klein that the larger problem—the “tenor of the debate”—might even be “exacerbated” by groups that organize lots of small-donor web donations from people with “axes to grind on the right and left.”
“Ultimately,” Murphy continued, the “holy grail” is public financing along the lines of Connecticut’s system: Allowing candidates who meet a “serious threshold” of small grassroots donations to qualify for an equally “serious” amount of public money to compete against wealthy or SuperPAC-financed opponents.
After all, he noted, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy beat a self-financed millionaire to win the 2010 Democratic nomination, then beat a self-financed millionaire to win the general election. Malloy could do that, Murphy argued, because he got enough public money to compete.