Vice President Joe Biden declared last week that the “one single thing” that would make it possible to turn liberal priorities into law would be to “get private money out of the political process.” Democratic candidates, he said, should “start in our own party” by only taking limited amounts of money during primaries from “millionaires and billionaires.”
Noticeably, Biden did not then add: “… And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing as I run for the Democratic presidential nomination, starting today!”
So while these were nice words on Biden’s part, it was a little like LeBron James holding the ball with 30 seconds left in game seven of the finals, saying, “I think one of our good players should really take a shot!” (Of course, that may be too flattering to Biden. He’s more like the Democrats’ Karl Malone: two finals, no championships.)
If anyone is living up to Biden’s words, it’s Bernie Sanders, who has committed to not accepting Super PAC support. By contrast, Super PACs affiliated with Hillary Clinton have so far raised $24 million, including million-dollar-plus donations from billionaires Haim Saban and George Soros. Of the $47.5 million Clinton’s campaign itself has raised to date in donations capped at $2,700, just one-fifth came from donors giving $200 or less, compared to four-fifths of Sanders’ $15 million.
Biden was speaking to Generation Progress, the youth arm of the think tank Center for American Progress, which is closely linked to the Democratic Party. Biden told his young audience that “no matter how much you love me or somebody else, you have to demand” of Democratic candidates that they take limited money from the 1 percent — at least during primaries. For general elections, Biden said, in which even candidates who dislike the current system can’t be expected to unilaterally disarm, “it’s going to require a constitutional amendment” nullifying Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions.
However, just as Biden did not announce he’s running for president using his own proposed rules, he also did not say, “When I leave office I’ll be perfectly positioned as an elder party statesman to devote the rest of my life to making these things happen!” So while these were are all great-sounding words from Biden, and it’s better that he say them than not, top Democrats have been talking for 40 years about how they want to get money out of politics, with the present-day system to show for it.
Moreover, money influences politics in many more ways than simply funding political candidates — and one subtle but important mechanism is via the funding of think tanks like the Center for American Progress.
After complaints about CAP’s prior lack of transparency, it recently released a list of its 2014 donors. Of the seven donors giving more than $1,000,000, three are anonymous. (The other four are predictable funders for a liberal institution: the Ford Foundation, Hutchins Family Foundation, Sandler Foundation and TomKat Charitable Trust.) CAP also received somewhere between $500,000 and $999,000 from the United Arab Emirates, and between between $100,000 and $499,000 from Japan, Walmart, Citigroup, Apple, Microsoft and the private equity firm Blackstone.
CAP claims that “corporate funding comprises less than 6 percent of the budget and foreign government funding comprises less than 3 percent” and “corporate donors are not permitted to remain anonymous,” and there’s no reason to doubt this. Nevertheless, CAP is living embodiment of the fact that the reality of money and politics is even more vexing than the problem Biden was talking about but refuses to actually try to fix.
The full text of Biden’s remarks on the topic is here.