Liberal Donors’ Ethical Confusion

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Think a little harder. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/2011 AFP

Nicholas Confessore reports that liberal millionaire donors, having spent months unsure whether to jump into the presidential race while conservative donors pump huge sums into pro–Mitt Romney ads, have decided upon a compromise solution: they will donate to outside groups, but they will focus on get-out-the-vote efforts rather than campaign advertisements. This is basically the kind of weenie attitude that periodically afflicts liberalism.

The explicit argument for their decision is that the donors believe they can’t match the Republican outside groups in advertising, so why try? Seriously:

... donors and strategists involved in the effort said they also did not believe they could match advertising spending by leading conservative groups like American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity, and instead wanted to exploit what they see as the Democrats’ advantage in grass-roots organizing.

Let me phrase this way of thinking slightly differently: Obama already has a significant advantage in the ground game, but faces a potentially huge disadvantage in the air wars. Therefore, the donors have concluded, they should invest their money augmenting the ground game.

Does this make any sense at all? No, it does not. It’s backwards. The most effective way to spend money is where your side has the greatest disadvantage. Beefing up the already strong Democratic turnout machine would certainly help, but a marginal dollar spent to narrow the advertising gap would surely help more. The point isn’t to “match” Republicans. It’s not as if declining to compete in the field of advertising will make advertising less relevant.

The real reason for this decision, and a reason hinted at in the story, is that liberal donors feel squeamish about entering the world of huge independent ad expenditures. After all, Obama himself condemned the Citizens United decision that has helped encourage massive outside spending. Numerous pundits have hinted that Obama is hypocritical for encouraging independent liberal donors, given his opposition to the campaign finance regime.

But this is also a confused definition of morality. Obama isn’t arguing that a donor who funds ads is doing something that’s inherently wrong. He’s arguing that a system that allows such donors to wield disproportionate political power is wrong. Given the fact of the system’s existence, there’s nothing morally wrong about participating in it. If Republicans were, say, kidnapping children and forcing them to work as slaves shackled to desks in their field offices, that would be inherently wrong. You would just let the Republicans have an advantage in the child-slave campaign labor sector because child slavery is wrong.

But having rich people fund huge campaign ads isn’t like that. If they’re legal, then there’s no reason to think that a world in which one party’s billionaires fund an advertising blitz is superior to a world in which both parties’ billionaires do so. Indeed, the latter world at least has the virtue of mitigating the political power enjoyed by said billionaires, by having a second group cancel out the effect of the first. Staying out of the advertising race isn't going to make the system any more fair.