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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can ‘Patriotic Billionaires’ End Domination of Politics by the Rich?

Matt Miller has a WaPo opinion post, “A Money Bomb for 2016,” suggesting a simple idea for ending the corruption that has paralyzed our political system. First, Miller does and excellent job of describing the core problem:

New legislators are told by party leaders to spend no less than four hours a day “dialing for dollars” for reelection. That’s twice the time they’re expected to spend on committee work, floor votes or meeting with constituents. And it doesn’t count the fundraisers they attend in their “free time.”
“Members routinely duck out of the House office buildings, where they are prohibited by law from campaigning,” the Boston Globe recently reported, “and walk across the street to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices…. There, on the second floor, 30 to 40 legislators and their staffers squeeze into the ‘bullpen’ … a makeshift call center of about two dozen cubicles, each 2½ feet wide and equipped with two land lines.”
The two parties function “basically like telemarketing firms,” Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who lost in 2010 after serving one term in the House, told the Globe. “‘You go down on any given evening and you’ve got 30 members with headsets on dialing and dialing and dialing, trying to close the deal.'”
…Our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns.
This is your democracy at work.

It’s a depressing image, enough to make many a potentially-promising candidate say “no thanks” to party recruiters. But Miller has a potential solution, which originates from a proposal by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig:

Enter Lessig’s idea. He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each (provided their fellow tycoons do the same). Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office.
The super PAC would champion a short slate of reforms centered around publicly supported small-dollar campaign funding. It would intervene in campaigns to help elect congressional candidates who sign on to this agenda and to defeat candidates who oppose it. Building on recent reforms in Connecticut and New York, the bedrock fix might involve a system of matching grants or tax credits or vouchers that enable average citizens (via public dollars) to be the main source of finance for competitive campaigns.
Politicos are helping Lessig develop a more precise, district-by-district estimate of how much money it would take to win a congressional majority pledged to these reforms, but his guesstimate feels like it is in the ballpark.

Say what you will about the likelihood of finding “50 patriotic billionaires” who also happen to be generous enough to contribute 20-40 million to such a cause. Lessig himself says “You have to embrace the irony.”
Miller points out that a mini-version of the idea has had some success in defeating 8 candidates who caved to well-funded special interests. And he reports that a new group called Fund for the Republic, is considering the idea. It may be possible to get such a fund started, and over time, who knows? Sometimes we have to put skepticism aside and make room for grace.

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