Democrats’ 'Big Money' moment of silence
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The Democrats have assembled an ever-expanding list of reasons why they lost — from Russian hacking to FBI director James Comey’s yacking, from a bad campaign to a bad candidate.
Occasionally, they mention bad policies — or lack-luster ones — which promised more of the same to an electorate demanding change.

But one item is missing for the list of culprits: Big Money.

Usually when progressives lose, they blame "big money from rich donors.” It went to their opponents, they say, because they are friends of the rich and tools of special interests.

Democrats rightly oppose the outsized influence of well-heeled donors and wrongly say that money goes to Republicans. It doesn’t. It simply goes where it profits the donors most. The only exceptions are rich activists with strong viewpoints, such as Tom Steyer on the environment or the Koch brothers on smaller government. 
But they are exceptions. K Street lobbyists are the rule.

Campaign donations go to whoever writes the laws that can subsidize their solar-energy plant or prevent their coal-fired plant from being shut down. When Democrats are in power, the money goes to them. When the Republicans are in power, it goes to them. Whoever writes the laws and inserts the loopholes and trap doors gets the donations.

What’s striking in the 2016 election, though, is how little big money accomplished. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE and the Democrats cannot blame the losses on "rich Republicans with all the campaign dough," and they haven't even bothered trying. The Democrats had a lot more money, and they spent it.

To understand why campaign money played such a minor role in this cycle, we need to ask what it buys. Politicians need campaign cash for three reasons: To gain name recognition; to get their message out, and; to build an organization to “Get Out the Vote.”

Once you have enough money for those, more doesn't buy much. It certainly didn’t buy more votes this time.

What was so unusual in 2016 is that Trump didn’t need to spend money for name recognition or messaging. His name and face were already ubiquitous from his TV shows, hotels, and casinos. He is a master promoter — and it showed. He used it effectively to gain still more recognition and a megaphone for his ideas from free media.

That exposure was not media bias. Except for Fox News, the cable networks openly ridiculed and reviled him. But they kept their cameras on live feed because people tuned in. They spent hours televising empty podiums, waiting breathlessly for Trump Force One to land and The Donald to ascend the stage.

Clinton, by contrast, could not have attracted viewers if the Super Bowl went into overtime right behind her. She had to spend. Clinton lavished money on negative advertisements and a Get Out the Vote operation.

Because progressives had more money and lost anyway, they have stifled their usual complaints that big money is ruining American democracy. The usual refrain about “big money” is curiously absent.

This silence doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. It’s a very real one, as it is bound to be in a country that prizes equality. But the Democratic Party approaches it with soiled hands, the hands of insiders who have collected a lot of money from self-interested donors. Their hypocrisy was on display when House Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their leader. Her dreadful record in national elections is offset by huge asset: she is a prodigious fundraiser.

This partisan silence about big money in politics will be short-lived. The complaints will return soon, and from the usual sources. With Republicans in control of both houses and the White House, they will rake in donations. The Democrats will yelp, claiming high principle when what is really at stake is low coffers.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

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