The Small Donor Revolution

THE SMALL DONOR REVOLUTION....Mark Kleiman argues today that for the past couple of decades the Democratic Party has been in hock to corporate interests. Not as much as Republicans, maybe, but enough to prevent Dems from pursuing lots of worthy public policies that a party of the common man ought to be pursuing. I assume he'll get little argument on this score from the lefty blogosphere, but then he muses about how this might change in November:
Assume for the second that November goes well, with a big win for Obama and increased majorities in both Houses. Assume in addition that the Obama money machine can keep cranking even after he becomes President, and can substantially replace the usual big-money interests as a source of campaign funding for Congressional Democrats.

One implication of that ought to be that some popular (and in some cases populist) programs that Democrats have been shying away from since 1974 because they can't afford to lose the donors suddenly become possible.
Mark has a list that includes things like copyright reform, hedge fund taxation, credit card regulation, and so forth, but it strikes me that he's putting the cart before the horse here. I chatted with him about this on Friday, and his basic argument is that Obama has created a spectacular money machine that he can call on at will. Got a congressman who's nervous about voting for healthcare reform because he'll lose the support of the insurance industry? No problem. President Obama can send out an email to his list, raise a couple mil overnight for the guy's reelection campaign, and there are no more worries about the insurance industry. Ditto for telecommunications, entertainment, and high tech cash.

This sounds great, but I'm skeptical. Obama has been raising enormous amounts of money from small donors, but he's been raising that money from people who are enthralled by Barack Obama and are willing to donate money to help Barack Obama become president. Once he actually becomes president, however, a lot of the thrill goes away. Partly this is because once the deed is done, the deed is done and people move on. Partly it's because the real-life Barack Obama is going to have to make compromises and tradeoffs just like any other real-life politician and his supporters will inevitably become a little less enthralled by him over time. Partly it's because people who are willing to donate to the Obama campaign aren't necessarily also willing to instantly open their wallets for other people just because Obama asks them to.

Plus there's this: Although Obama, and to a lesser extent online organizations like MoveOn, have been able to raise huge amounts of small-donor money, "huge" is a relative term. The amount may be big compared to my house payment, but compared to the cost of an entire election cycle it's still fairly small. This means that big corporate donors are going to stay pretty important.

Still, it's an interesting topic. Just how far is the small-donor revolution going to take us? I'm not convinced Mark is entirely wrong about this, but I'm not really convinced he's entirely right either — and it seems like a conversation that's worth having in public, not just as party chitchat. Should big corporate interests be feeling scared right about now? Comments are open.

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