Political Shorts: Michelle Obama and Campaign Financing

Michelle Obama makes news in the biggest dog-bites-man story of the new year, and her husband returns home for a whirlwind fundraising trip.

Michelle Obama

 

Last week we published three conversations between Carol Felsenthal and Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas. I thought they were interesting but unsurprising; my favorite bit was this:

Michelle Obama is the real politician in the family in the sense she is more effusive, better at connecting instantly with people. A good source of mine once said to me, “Here’s what you have to remember: She is Bill Clinton, and he is Hillary.”

Little did I know that Kantor’s book would create shocking controversy:

She particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, all white Irish Catholic — the Daleys of Chicago, the Hyneses and Madigans statewide. “Someone doesn’t have the right to be elected because of whose womb they came out of,” she would say a few years later to Dan Shomon, her husband’s political advisor. “You shouldn’t have a better chance if you’re a Kennedy than if you’re an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?”

Rich Miller talked to Shomon, who said that neither he nor Obama said anything about “white Irish Catholic” families, but not before the excerpt was briefly inescapable. But that’s not the only thing that caused a stir.

Kantor writes that the first lady wasn’t thrilled about her husband’s choice for chief of staff and as time wore on, the pair was increasingly at odds over how President Obama should approach policy issues like immigration and health-care reform. Emanuel often took the tack that the president needed realistic legislative victories, while the president’s spouse was more concerned with whether her husband was fulfilling the mission he set out to achieve.

(For the record, she denies that there were tensions between her and Emanuel.)

Somehow this has brought back an old theme I thought we were done with:

And so it seems we’ve been in cookie-recipe land—or perhaps, more accurately, vegetable garden meadow—ever since. But now, with Kantor’s book, the specter of the “angry black woman” is back, but this time her alleged meddling has been going on behind the scenes.

Let’s put this in context. Michelle Obama is alleged to 1) have been frustrated with Illinois political nepotism and 2) to have had disagreements with Rahm Emanuel over political priorities and methods. Even if both were true, this seems to put her in a heavily overlapping Venn diagram with the universal “people who are frustrated by the Bears’ history of quarterbacks” and the more controversial “people who disagree that you should put ketchup on your hot dog,” give or take a few percentage points.

If this makes her an angry black woman, there are a lot of angry black women in Chicago and elsewhere, many of whom are not female, black, or angry.


Obama is in town for some pricey fundraising dinners, which causes Steve Bogira to write:

I’ve no doubt that Obama cares about the troubles of ghetto residents. He isn’t venal or corrupt. But he’s the hostage of a venal and corrupt system that has muted him.

The crimes of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his ilk seize our attention, but our leaders are rarely criminally corrupt, Lawrence Lessig observes in his recent book, Republic Lost. The problem is deeper and more troubling than that. “A much more virulent, if much less crude, corruption does indeed wreck our democracy,” Lessig writes, “a corruption practiced by decent people, people we should respect, people working extremely hard to do what they believe is right.”

That corruption is our campaign-finance system, according to Lessig, who directs the Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard. It has two features. One is that government is responsive to the rich and powerful rather than to most voters. The second is that because of the first feature, voters see democracy as a charade. “Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.”

I disagree with Lessig that the end result is that “policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.” For example, I think the most prominent and successful “extremist,” at least in the sense that his views are well outside the mainstream of either major party, is Ron Paul—and if the government is responsive to the rich and powerful, it’s unlikely to eliminate the Federal Reserve anytime soon. My impression is that while politicians may temper their rhetoric to the extremes of the base, we ultimately tend to muddle through with a cobbled-together centrism, which may not be the “sensible middle” that Lessig prefers.

Anyway, that’s just a tangent. Bogira’s post reminded me of a good piece in The American Prospect about Connecticut’s experiment with campaign-finance reform, which came about through some kind of upside-down bizarro-world politiciking:

“The dynamic of Governor Rell and the Democrats trying to out-reform each other was crucial,” says Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of state operations for Common Cause. “They would keep egging each other on with public statements, quite confident that the other would not call their bluff.”

But Democratic lawmakers responded to Rell’s dare. They neutralized the fundraising rules that had brought them success, agreeing to ban lobbyist and state-contractor contributions along with ad-book sales. Candidates seeking public dollars would first have to raise a minimum level of funds, all in small amounts, from individual donors. A state senate candidate, for example, could receive $85,000 in state funds for the general election after first raising $15,000 from private donors—none of whom could contribute more than $100.

Two opposing parties, double-dog daring each other to reduce the amount of corporate money available to politicians, and to make available substantial sums of public money to challengers of independently wealthy candidates. It survived court challenges, but it faces more as the recession continues, since it relies on the public’s willingness to counter corporate money with taxpayer money. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that bears watching.

 

Photograph: The White House

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