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Dirty Politics: The War Against the Kochs

By    |   Friday, 23 August 2019 04:39 PM

Conservative billionaire philanthropist David Koch, an industrialist and libertarian who used his fortune to transform American politics while also donating more than $1 billion to philanthropic causes, died Friday at the age of 79. The Newsmax magazine article below, written by senior staff writer David A. Patten, was part of a cover story package that ran in the magazine in July, 2014.

For decades, David and Charles Koch have warned an ever-expanding federal government represents a growing threat to individual liberty.

Although President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid like to characterize them as “shadowy billionaires,” they have been outspoken about their views. It is no secret that beyond their other charitable endeavors, the libertarian-leaning Koch brothers support conservative nonprofits that work to restrain the long reach of government. Together, they seek an end to the war on drugs and constitutional restraint on government surveillance.

Reid’s firestorm began in earnest in February 2014. Nicknamed “Dirty Harry” for his bare-knuckled style of politics, he was addressing the nation from the floor of the upper chamber.

Hoping to avoid becoming a back-bencher in November, Reid was trying to energize his party by talking about what he saw as the most pernicious force in America. At issue was not the economy or healthcare costs. Rather, the focus of his remarks was on David and Charles Koch.

“What is going on with these two brothers, who made billions of dollars last year, in an attempt to buy our democracy, is dishonest, deceptive, false, and unfair,” Reid said. “Just because you have huge amounts of money, you should not be able to run these false, misleading ads by the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“You see,” Reid continued, “when you make billions of dollars a year, you can be, I guess, as immoral and dishonest as your money will allow you to be. It’s too bad that they’re trying to buy America.

“And it’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone that I can imagine.” Reid’s calumny was a breathtaking political attack targeting two private citizens. And it set off a series of repercussions.

Republicans protested that Reid had demeaned his high office and should step down. Grass-roots activists saw the remarks as another example of how out-of-control elites were targeting their enemies.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, the former GOP congressman hardly given to hyperbole, decried Reid’s assault as “lies” and “McCarthyism.” Others would come to the Kochs’ defense as well.

But perhaps the most effective riposte arrived about two months later via the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission. The case focused on whether it was constitutional to limit the aggregate campaign contributions of politically active donors. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion declared: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

“The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment . . . we have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.” Thus, the court jettisoned the aggregate $123,200 individual limit on campaign donations to candidates and parties per two-year cycle.

Some hailed the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment, while others decried it as a new low in pay-to-play politics.

McCutcheon followed a related decision in Citizen United v Federal Election Commission, the pro-super PAC ruling that so aggravated Obama he lambasted it in his 2010 State of the Union address, charging it would open “the floodgates for special interests.” (Though Obama would go on to outraise Mitt Romney by well over $100 million in 2012.)

From the point of view of the Kochs, the rulings meant that no matter how much President Obama, Majority Leader Reid, and other champions of Big Government might despise them, the judiciary and the Constitution were on their side in the debate over whether all Americans, regardless of their net worth, should be free to spend as much money as they want to influence political outcomes.

As far as the Supreme Court was concerned, the scorecard on that question was pretty clear. It read: Koch brothers 2, Harry Reid 0.

Blame Game

Understanding why proponents of Big Government seek to paint two successful brothers from Kansas as the fount of all evil requires a bit of context. After all, the first blow that toppled the ancien régime of campaign-finance reform came not from the Kochs or Chief Justice Roberts.

That dubious distinction, in fact, belongs to Barack Obama.

In June 2008, in what the Boston Globe would call “a dramatic blow to 1970s good-government reform,” then-candidate Obama reneged on his promise to accept public financing for his general-election campaign.

In so doing, Obama became the first major-party candidate to opt out of public funding for a general election, thereby effectively sounding the death knell for public financing of campaigns. Obama blamed this turnabout, naturally, on Republicans, telling supporters: “We face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system.”

GOP nominee Sen. John McCain probably didn’t feel much like a mastermind at “gaming” the system. He opted to remain in the public-finance system, and he received $84.1 million in public funds for his general election campaign.

He was allowed to raise $46.4 million to defray his campaign’s legal and accounting expenses.

That made for a total campaign budget of $130.5 million. Obama, by contrast, was richly rewarded for defenestrating public financing after he said he would accept it. His campaign raised a staggering $745.7 million — an all-time record, until his 2012 re-election campaign raked in over $1 billion. A lot of that money came from small donors inspired by his historic candidacy. But a lot of it also streamed in from Hollywood and Wall Street, and unions and campaign bundlers.

Given the amount of money flooding into his campaign, perhaps any politician would have done the same thing. But Obama’s willingness to tear down a key pillar of finance reform has made Republicans skeptical that Democrats occupy the moral high ground on campaign-finance reform that they presume to hold.

As to why campaign-finance became the bugaboo of the 2014 cycle, that dates back to the rise of the tea parties in February 2009 and, one year later, Republican Scott Brown’s capture of the Massachusetts Senate seat long occupied by the late liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy, which rattled the Democratic leadership. For Democrats to lose such an iconic seat in a deep blue state, not to mention their supermajority in the U.S. Senate, sounded alarms for any politician hoping to win re-election in the 2010 midterm election.

Together, those related occurrences rudely served notice to Democrats that they might not enjoy the era of political dominance many on the left had predicted following Barack Obama’s remarkable election.

When Democrats analyzed the defeat, they realized the nascent tea party groups and other conservative organizations had played a key role in offsetting the power of organized labor. Democrats decided it was those groups, rather than their approach to governance, that accounted for their defeat.

“It’s really easy when you’re on the left to think that all intelligent people agree,” observed Curt Levey, the president and executive director of the Committee for Justice, a leading opponent of Obamacare. “If those views ‘everyone agrees with’ are not getting implemented, there must be some sort of cabal. And since rich people are evil, it must be rich people [who are to blame].”

Hypocrisy

Conservatives who found it hard to fathom why Obama would use his annual address to Congress to score political points against the Supreme Court did not realize just how powerfully the campaign-finance issue resonated in some political circles.

Campaign advertising impresario Mark McKinnon, who helped George W. Bush win re-election and later co-founded the independent “No Labels” group, said the problem isn’t the Kochs, but rather the system.

“The Kochs are just good at taking advantage of the system,” McKinnon stated in an email to Newsmax. He sees money in politics as “a perversion of democracy.”

A complementary view is held by presidential historian and best-selling author Jonathan Alter, who maintained that McCutcheon and Citizens United are bad precedents.

“There’s always going to be money in politics, and anyone who wants to get money out of politics is a naïve fool,” said Alter. “The problem is big money in politics . . . it’s just better for the health of our republic if it comes from small donors.”

It may never be known whether Obama’s tirade against the Supreme Court was politically motivated or sincere. Levey for one is skeptical. “They didn’t worry about it when it was George Soros, who was doing this before the Koch brothers did,” he said. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy involved.”

What is clear is Obama’s State of the Union message kicked off the first version of Democrats’ plan to compete at the ballot box despite being responsible for unpopular healthcare reforms and a moribund economy.

Initially, it was the president himself who delivered much of the rhetoric. Six months after he chastised the Supreme Court, he revisited the theme to suggest someone else was to blame for the massive unemployment still plaguing the economy at that point. The real problem, he suggested, were the wealthy people who were gaming the system.

He spoke of “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads . . . And they don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation.” This broadside against AFP, a conservative advocacy organization the Kochs helped found and continue to guide and support, was typical of those early efforts to redirect voters’ attention. The attacks would often focus on an organization or policy, rather than an individual.

Liberals also attacked the tea party. Top Democrats either disparaged them as racists or charged they were “Astroturf”; that is, a less-than-spontaneous uprising that was actually fomented by AFP and its high-roller donors.

For anyone who has followed the tea party movement, however, the notion that the thousands of fractious groups that comprise the grass-roots conservative movement were orchestrated seems risible. Yes, groups like AFP and FreedomWorks jumped in to encourage them. But anyone actually trying to “organize” the tea party groups from on high must have been doing an awfully poor job. The groups were just too independent.

Tim Phillips, the president of AFP and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, scoffs at the notion that the tea parties are somehow less than genuine.

“There are literally thousands of tea party groups in every state,” Phillips said. “The idea that one group, or one group of individuals could engineer such a large spontaneous diverse movement is just silly. It kind of speaks to the conspiracy-theory nature of these hard-core leftists.”

Phillips made clear the Kochs’ support was important, but by no means singular in the organization’s roster: “While we’re proud to have the support of Charles and David, this organization has tens of thousands of financial supporters and over 2 million grass-roots activists.”

In retrospect, the initial efforts in 2010 to use class division to redirect attention away from the economy were amateurish compared to the more sophisticated iterations that would follow. But they were instructive nonetheless.

Bob Cusack, commentator and managing editor of The Hill newspaper and TheHill.com, has watched from a ringside seat as Democrats first developed, and later honed, their conversation-shifting strategy.

He has concluded that populist proposals alone — raising the minimum wage, garnering equal pay for women, and arguing against enforcement of immigration laws — are not enough to motivate liberal donors and overcome the inertia that tends to befall Democrats in the midterm. What they also need, he said, is a villain to personify voters’ frustrations.

The strategy of shifting the conversation from the economy to income inequality required a major overhaul before it was rolled out against Romney in 2012. President Obama’s strategists knew he would have to defy some historic trends to win re-election, given the state of the economy. Rather than ignoring voters’ frustrations, the key would be to deflect them in another direction.

In 2012, AFP would be relieved of duty as the boogeyman.

Instead, the role of the evil capitalist would fall to President Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, the wealthy GOP standard-bearer and former governor of Massachusetts.

Just how dirty that campaign would be became evident in the summer of 2012 when a pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, aired a commercial suggesting that Romney and his former firm Bain Capital were responsible for a woman’s death. A steel plant was closed, the woman had lost her health insurance, and subsequently she died of cancer.

“By then it was stage 4; there was nothing they could do for her,” bereaved husband Joe Soptic said in the ad, as somber piano strains sounded in the background. “I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone. And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”

A former Obama aide denied the ad suggested Romney was responsible for the woman’s early demise.

“We find that preposterous,” the PolitiFact watchdog declared. Fact-checkers debunked the ad as false, but by then of course it was already reverberating in the media echo chamber.

The Romney campaign was slow to recognize the damage negative ads were inflicting on their candidate, especially in the Democratic firewall state of Ohio. But Romney himself played into the stereotype by making disparaging remarks about the “47 percent” who received federal entitlements — a rather broad swathe of Americans that includes veterans, seniors, and the disabled.

Bob Cusack said, “Romney fit into the perfect stereotype that Democrats needed: Somewhat out of touch, a wealthy guy, caught on tape talking about the 47 percent.” The rest is political history.

Demonization

As Sen. Reid’s salvos indicate, Democrats two years later are planning to run the populist misdirection play one more time. This time, they hope to enlist the Kochs to serve as the foil. Of course, many of these same Democrats privately laud the Kochs’ charitable endeavors and business accomplishments. But that’s immaterial.

Given the president’s flagging approval numbers, Democrats know they are perilously close to losing the Senate.

Now the question is, Will the demonization strategy that failed in 2010, and succeeded famously in 2012, be enough to save the one or two red-state Senate seats that Democrats must hold onto to keep Republicans from taking over both chambers?

Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign strategist and political commentator, strongly rejects the notion that it is fair to single out the Koch brothers.

“There was a time in this country,” he said, “when the growth of a company, the opportunity that it gave their employees, the returns that it gave the employees, the amount of wealth that it has created not just for the ownership of the company, but up and down the company ladder, that these were all virtues that would be admired.”

But in today’s America, all that just makes you a target.

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For decades, David and Charles Koch have warned an ever-expanding federal government represents a growing threat to individual liberty.Although President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid like to characterize them as "shadowy billionaires," they have been...
david koch, death, newsmax, magazine, politics, conservative
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2019-39-23
Friday, 23 August 2019 04:39 PM
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