The existential crisis of the liberal millionaire
David Brock has a message for liberal millionaires: Don’t sweat being called hypocrites.
Brock, a former “right-wing hit-man”-turned-top-big-money-Democratic-operative, is part of a behind-the-scenes campaign to convince donors it’s OK to attack the Koch brothers for spending millions of dollars while doing the exact same thing for the left.
“You’re not in this room today trying to figure out how to rig the game so you can be free to make money poisoning little kids, and neither am I,” Brock told donors this month at a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to someone who attended the conference, but who declined to be identified because it was closed to the press.
“Subscribing to a false moral equivalence is giving the Kochs exactly what they want: keeping us quiet about what they’re doing to destroy the very fabric of our nation,” added Brock, whose deep-pocketed nonprofit groups are leading the charge to make the conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch an issue in the 2014 midterms.
Conservatives reject the notion that rich liberals donate more out of their concern for society than do their conservative counterparts like the Kochs. But Brock’s pitch also isn’t sitting well with some major liberal donors and operatives, who worry the anti-Koch strategy could backfire big time. It has not yet been proven effective at motivating key Democratic voting blocs like unmarried women and minorities, and liberal critics also worry it risks undercutting more important issues, smacks of class warfare and opens themselves up to hypocrisy charges.
“The Democrats’ problem is off-year turnout, and I’m not clear how emphasizing the Koch brothers gets more black and brown folks to the polls,” said Steve Phillips, a member of the secretive Democracy Alliance club of major liberal donors. “My sense for voters of color is that the issues of income inequality, housing, education, immigration reform, health care and criminal justice reform would resonate more.
So while big-money liberals scramble to match the unprecedented money plans being methodically prosecuted by Koch brothers’ political operation, they’re also grappling with more fundamental strategic questions — are we really that different from the Kochs and do voters really care?
If it’s not resolved efficiently, the debate could undermine a central piece of their strategy for 2014 and beyond, and send liberal donors to the sidelines indefinitely.
The partisan focus on the Kochs is also off-putting for another group of major liberal donors — those whose giving is, perhaps ironically, motivated by a desire to reduce the flow of money into politics.
“I think it would be much better to talk about the Koch brothers and Soros,” said Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, referring to the billionaire financier George Soros, who helped start the Democracy Alliance. Cohen has spent heavily pushing a long-shot constitutional amendment to blunt the impacts of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that sparked a wave of big-money political spending. “I am dismayed at the way that Democrats are using it as a partisan issue.”
In the elite world of big Democratic money, Brock is seen as the perfect evangelist to help convince rich liberals of their moral superiority — and to help them grow some backbone. After channeling support from conservative megadonors into attacks on the Clintons, Brock renounced the right in the late 1990s and has since built an empire of well-funded liberal attack groups leading the charge against the Kochs.
At the New Mexico speech, which was hosted by a Democracy Alliance offshoot called the Committee on the States and attended by major donors including Jonathan Soros, Brock acknowledged what he called, “liberal hypersensitivity to charges of hypocrisy. After all, Democratic campaigns and organizations increasingly rely on big money, too. Why, it might even be said that it’s a bit hypocritical of me to come to a closed-door conference of big donors and the organizations that rely on them and stand up here bashing the Koch brothers. So be it.”
Brock did not dispute the characterization of the speech, but he declined to comment on it, since it was closed to the press. A source close to him, though, stressed that Brock’s goal is to focus is on the Kochs’ agenda, rather than on them personally.
He already has some influential allies in the Democracy Alliance, despite concerns in the DA ranks about Koch attacks stoking class warfare.
“Criticizing Koch-led campaign spending is not vilifying the rich,” said David desJardins, an early Google employee and DA board member. “If someone wants to vilify David and Charles Koch for being rich, I think that would be dumb. Criticizing them for attempting to buy elections and for squashing any attempts to limit the influence of money in politics is very different.”
In April 2011, multiple donors expressed uneasiness after a screening at a Democracy Alliance conference of part of a documentary by the liberal nonprofit production studio Brave New Films called “Koch Brothers Exposed,” and at least one even walked out, according to sources. The documentary — which splices together photos of various Koch brothers’ homes with stats on how much they make per hour and allegations that they’re trying to “run roughshod over the American people” — struggled to raise money from major donors, and the Democracy Alliance subsequently removed Brave New Films from its top tier of grantees.
Brave New Films’ president, Robert Greenwald, asserted the demotion by the DA was unrelated to the Koch documentary, which has gotten a second life as Democratic leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have embraced the Koch attacks. And Greenwald disputed characterizations that it was poorly received by DA types back in 2011.
“I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about with Democracy Alliance or not talk about with Democracy Alliance, because I’m not in Democracy Alliance anymore,” Greenwald told POLITICO. “I thought there was a good response. But people don’t tell you everything. … It was a small screening. It was late at night. And even if they wanted to walk out, I don’t think they would have done it with me sitting right there.”