Chris McDaniel and the Inconvenience of Democracy

Thad Cochran’s victory last night in Mississippi’s bitterly contested Republican Senate primary might be seen by some as the legitimate outcome of a democratic voting process. To Chris McDaniel, however, it is an affront to liberty, the principles of Reagan, conservative values, the sanctity of the vote, and a variety of other hallowed principles. One might think that a self-proclaimed champion of freedom such as McDaniel would yield graciously to the will of the people but, in light of the fact that they hadn’t supported him, he declined to concede and insistently told his supporters “we were right tonight.” Unfortunately, the majority of the voters evidently weren’t informed of the righteousness of his cause and gave the nod to Thad Cochran. Displeased with the outcome of the democratic process, McDaniel vowed to fight on against his own party, and the injustice visited upon him by the voters of his own state.

The primary cause of McDaniel’s rage seems to be the suspicion that Cochran had won by getting Democratic voters to support him in the Republican primary. Unfortunately for McDaniel, this practice is completely legal. While a voter cannot vote in both the Democratic and Republican primary, they can vote in whichever one they choose. Although there is a vague provision in Mississippi election law stating that a person isn’t eligible to participate in a particular primary “unless he intends to support the nominations made in the primary in which he participates,” this is completely unenforceable. How exactly would the government go about policing voter intent? The reality, which McDaniel definitely refuses to acknowledge, is that this relatively open primary system is an accepted part of Mississippi politics, which McDaniel should know since he himself has voted in Democratic primaries. Cochran was able to expand the electorate, buck historic trends by increasing turnout in a primary run-off, and did so in accordance with relevant election laws.

Determined not go down peacefully or graciously, McDaniel took the stage on election night to denounce the outrage committed by the voters of Mississippi. Declaring that the GOP is “not the party of Reagan”, he decried the scandalous politics that had led to his defeat. “We have to be absolutely certain,” he intoned, “that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.” While McDaniel would certainly have better chances if he were able to pick and choose the voters, this was not an election restricted solely to Republicans. Mississippi doesn’t even require party registration in the first place. Evidently seeing Cochran’s efforts to convince people to vote for him as some betrayal of democracy, he deplored these nefarious tactics, saying Cochran had won by “once again compromising. By once again reaching across the aisle. By once again abandoning the conservative movement.” Assured of the righteousness of his cause, McDaniel seemed comfortable in his contempt of the 191,000 voters who had exercised their democratic right that evening and opposed his candidacy.

McDaniel can manufacture outrage over the outcome of the election, but the reality is that Cochran ran a better campaign over the past three weeks and convinced a majority of voters, be they Democrats or Republicans, to vote for him. This is not an affront to the democratic process; this is the democratic process. Chris McDaniel seems to think he was entitled to a Senate seat because he attracted the support of one wing of one party. Perhaps he should take a page from Cochran’s playbook and realize that elections are rarely won by exclusion.

Hillary Clinton Stumbles on Wealth Questions

After a presidential election in which the losing candidate was seriously damaged, if not defeated, by perceptions that he was a distant plutocrat, Hillary Clinton’s early stumbles on questions about her personal fortune certainly cheered opponents. Claims that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House and had “no money” rang hollow with the public. While their finances may have been stretched thinner than some may realize, there’s certainly no shortage of lucrative opportunities for an ex-president and accomplished first lady. She didn’t help matters with a later remark that they pay income taxes “unlike a lot people who are truly well off.” If Clinton is indeed going to seek the presidency, she’s going to need to find a better way to talk about being rich.

The “dead broke” comment was a tone deaf exaggeration that was predictably lampooned and met with general skepticism. Enlisting Terry McAuliffe to help secure a loan for a $1.7 million house isn’t quite the same thing as scrambling to scrounge together a security deposit for a post-White House apartment. The remark about those who are “truly well off” is a bit more innocuous when read in context, but still a comment that should’ve been avoided after she claimed to have emerged from the White House in poverty. It’s precisely the kind of sound bite that will be dissected by breathless conservative commentators and minced into unflattering headlines.

In the grand scheme of the 24-hour news cycle, these remarks are unlikely to be terribly significant in the long run. They’ll live on for a time in the conservative echo chamber but will eventually fade from public memory, particularly as other prospective candidates contribute their own verbal failures to the national discussion. However, that doesn’t mean Clinton’s initial missteps on this topic shouldn’t be cause for some concern. In the wake of a major recession, with income equality becoming a more persistent issue, and many voters convinced that the American Dream is no longer within reach, talking about wealth has become an increasingly important part of running for office in America. Voters can be forgiven for thinking that the millionaire candidate on stage who just flew in on a corporate jet from a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser may not be completely in tune with their concerns. While the Clintons spent much of their lives in public service and outside the upper stratosphere of income earners, in recent years they have earned tremendous amounts of money from best-selling books, speaking engagements, and other endeavors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with such success, but there needs to be a better approach to discussing it. Fortunately for Clinton, she has quite a bit of time to develop that message.

Musings on the Sons of Wichita  

In some respects, the Koch Brothers in Daniel Schulman’s Sons of Wichita aren’t the caricatures of miserly billionaires or heartless oligarchs they are often depicted as. Though the four brothers were born into wealth, their father was always determined that his sons would not grow up to become “country club bums.” In order to prevent such a leisurely outcome, the Koch brothers spent their summers hard at work on the family property, settled their disputes with boxing matches, and cultivated bitter sibling rivalries that have endured throughout their adult lives. Though the Wichita Country Club was across the street from the family home, the boys did not spend idle summers lounging by the pool. As they’ve grown up, they’ve become generous philanthropists, giving to museums, cultural institutions, and medical research.

In other ways, however, the portrait drawn in Schulman’s book presents a life of tremendous privilege beyond what most Americans can imagine. Each of the four brothers was shipped off to a prestigious boarding school, attended an elite university in the northeast, and had their fortune assured by their share of the family business. Though the four worked hard, they certainly didn’t have to work their way up. Upon their father’s death, the company that passed into the brothers’ hands had revenues of $250 million. Nowadays, the brothers dabble in hobbies of the exceptionally wealthy, such as collecting art, historic estates, six-figure bottles of wine, and, at a cost of $68 million, winning the America’s Cup sailing race.

Schuman’s book is neither damning nor laudatory, but it does illuminate the motivations and beliefs of some of the most powerful political actors in the country. Though two of the brothers, Bill and Frederick, are no longer involved with the company and less involved politically, Charles and David have grown Koch Industries exponentially and become a legitimate political force as their wealth has reached astronomical levels. They are evangelicals of unrestrained campaign spending, founders of 501(c)’s and PACs, and the hosts of lavish fundraising getaways where America’s wealthiest dole out tens of millions of dollars to further their vision of economic freedom. At a November 2011 fundraiser headlined by Chris Christie, the brothers and their allies raised $70 million in a single weekend. To put that in perspective, President Obama’s campaign raised $10.9 million throughout that entire month. For the 2012 election, the Koch network raised at least $400 million, easily surpassing the $368 million John McCain raised for his 2008 presidential campaign.

The vision they seek to advance with this financial windfall is motivated more by libertarian values and a boundless faith in the free market than anything else. During the 1970s, Charles inhabited the fringes of libertarian thought, with the executive editor of a libertarian magazine he owned describing his political beliefs by saying “he seemed to me to be an anarchist” who was “contemptuous of government on every level.” Though his beliefs have moderated since that time, they are still rooted in a vision of minimal government, limited social programs, and the supremacy of the free market. David, though not quite as ideologically driven as his brother, actually ran as a vice presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket in 1980. Fittingly, he secured the slot after promising substantial donations to the campaign if he was chosen.

Since their days of diehard libertarianism, there seems to have been a drift towards more pragmatic considerations and a realization that to bring the country closer to their values, they would have to participate more actively in mainstream politics. With the industriousness and massive amounts of money that seem to characterize all Koch endeavors, they have done just that. And beyond simply participating in a political system awash with cash in the wake of Citizens United, they have made themselves some of the most powerful independent actors in American politics. The charge that the Tea Party is funded by secretive billionaires is often lobbied as a partisan barb, but there is an indisputable element of truth to it. The Koch’s network of political organization moved quickly to back the Tea Party by registering domains and setting up a text alert service to direct people to rallies, and has consistently funded a litany of Tea Party groups since. While there certainly no shortage of anti-Obama sentiment on the right, the Tea Party might have long ago choked on its own vitriol or slowly died out from lack of funding were it not for the continued financial support of the Kochs.

Overall, the scale of the Koch’s political network is truly staggering. Their constellation of advocacy groups, “social welfare” organizations, political action committees and a complex web of peripheral 501(c) organizations are once again awash with “dark money” for the 2014 election. How much will likely remain unknown to the public, although Politico reported last week that the budget has been set at $290 million. This will be used to advance the agenda of two men who, by any objective measure, have a political ideology that is well outside the mainstream. There are tens of millions of Americans who would like to see a smaller government, but relatively few would embrace the minimal government that the Kochs have championed for years. They are, after all, two men who can afford to advocate against the minimum wage, against health care, and against social security, because they have never been in a position to worry about any of these things. Ideology often finds its most vigorous champions amongst those who can afford it.