The truth about politicians and donors

The Texas Tribune has a story on Bob Perry who rates as the largest political donor in Texas today. In the last decade, Perry has donated $28 million to Texas candidates and another $38 million to federal candidates and committees. Perry has also given millions to charitable causes. While the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal called him a “rock star” of GOP donors, Perry is especially interesting because he’s so low-key. He is much more like a reclusive producer than a rock star. He doesn’t do media interviews and isn’t a visible figure at political events. His role in Texas politics is subtle–or at least as subtle as anyone can be while tossing around $66 million. It’s ironic to see Bob Perry avoiding the spotlight even as he pays millions to keep a spotlight on the much less shy Rick Perry.

There are several interesting questions about big donors like Bob Perry. One question hinges on how much influence donors like Bob Perry have over elected officials like Rick Perry. Are big donors buying influence?

The Truth about Cats and Dogs-Movie Poster

Cats and Dogs

I sometimes illustrate the different views of donors as “dogs vs. cats.” Some people view politicians like dogs. If you feed them, you will win their obedience and loyalty. Others people view politicians as more like cats who are sometimes willing to allow you the pleasure of feeding and petting them, but generally seem to relish their independence.

[My apologies to those of you with pets who don’t fit the stereo type. Grant me a little artistic license on this.]

On one hand, we have to admit that big donors are buying some influence and making candidates look like dogs that are eager to please their master. People like Bob Perry did not get rich by investing poorly. Perry is smart enough to invest money where he gets a return and he’s didn’t put $66 million into the political system and expect to walk away empty-handed. People cite Perry’s influence in the creation of the Texas Residential Construction Commission, an agency that some feel did more to protect builder than homeowners,  as evidence the his contributions had given him the kind of access required to influence government.

On the other hand, we also have to acknowledge that donors like Perry might be manipulated by politicians who exhibit a little feline independence. Ironically, some of the advocates of campaign finance reform can be found among the ranks of the big donors. They have grown weary of being “shaken down” by politicians year after year. They feel that big contributions are expected and are now the cost of doing business. The need to pay kick backs undermines the economy of many underdeveloped counties. The need to put money into political campaigns may be more legal and/or more ethical than filling the personal accounts of corrupt officials, but it’s no less expensive.  These businesses would like to see limits on contributions so that they can invest their profits back into their businesses. At best, Bob Perry is paying millions of dollars to try to get what he considers good government. He may be advocating for lower taxes, but paying for the good government citizens are already entitled to is like a tax.

Perry contributed $7 million to Karl Rove’s “American Crossroads” committee. After studying campaigns for decades it seems pretty clear to me that most campaign spending is pretty ineffective. Some campaigns throw millions of dollars at voters in a desperate attempt to win–even though they know that much of what they spend will be wasted. Karl Rove may spend millions and millions of dollars on the election, but it should be clear to anyone who looks at the evidence that the economy always drives the outcome of the elections. The millions of dollars that Perry gave Rove will prove to be as inefficient any government program and a donor should worry if anyone but Rove really benefitted.

Are politicians more like cats or dogs? I guess I’ve seen some of both.

Inequality

The amount of influence Bob Perry has in the system looks very different if we focus on equality. The influence of a large donor may be overstated by some, but it’s still clear that large donors are winning more influence than small donors. Voters seem to generally accept that large donors have a right to support their candidates. Still, it has to leave many citizens feeling that their own contributions will always be overshadowed by powerful political action committees or big donors.

Texas law puts no dollar limits on most campaigns (judicial campaigns–are kind of an exception). While free speech considerations and  futility of campaign finance often keeps us from doing more, we might worry that we gave up too quickly on the notion of political equality.

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