Topic: Government and Politics

Oprah Winfrey, Political Power Broker

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey is making a million-dollar contribution to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And despite all the campaign finance restrictions of the past 30 years, it’s perfectly legal. That’s because Oprah is making her contribution in the form of time on her television show, appearances with him on the campaign trail, and other uses of her celebrity. But if a rival media mogul, someone like Sumner Redstone or John Malone, wanted to make a contribution of more than $2,300 to a presidential candidate, that would be illegal. Because, you know, it’s corrupt to make a large contribution. Wouldn’t want the next president to be indebted to a businessman who gave him a $10,000 contribution.

This Saturday, “Winfrey will host her first-ever presidential fundraising affair on the grounds of the Promised Land, her 42-acre ocean- and mountain-view estate in Montecito, Calif. – an event that is expected to raise more than $3 million for Obama’s campaign.”

Matthew Mosk of the Washington Post outlines some of the other ways Winfrey might help her preferred candidate.

Among the weapons in Winfrey’s arsenal: the television program that reaches 8.4 million viewers each weekday afternoon, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers. Her Web site reaches 2.3 unique viewers each month, “O, the Oprah Magazine,” has a circulation of 2 million, she circulates a weekly newsletter to 420,000 fans and 360,000 people have subscribed to her Web site for daily “Oprah Alerts” by e-mail.

More than that, though, the Nielsen tracking data show that her most loyal viewers are women between 25 and 55 – a group that also votes in large numbers in Democratic primaries.

Oprah’s well aware of her power:

The fundraiser may be only the start. The Winfrey and Obama machines have maintained silence on the exact nature of their talks over what her role will be, but the idea of her appearing in television ads and other appeals is very much in play. She offered during a recent interview with CNN’s Larry King: “My money isn’t going to make any difference. My value to him – my support of him – is probably worth more than any other check that I could write.”…

Winfrey said in an audio Web chat last week that, this year, the Obamas will be her only political guests.

Campaign finance reform was promised as a way to make everyone equal in the political process, to squeeze out the power of big money. But one of its effects is to make some rich people more equal than others. If Oprah–or Rupert Murdoch, or Donald Graham–decides to use his or her resources to help a particular candidate, that’s legal and very powerful. But the rich man who runs a software company is forbidden to use any significant part of his financial resources to help a candidate.

All power to journalists and celebrities in the reformed political process.

The Republicans’ Post-Election Personal Pork Party

At The Hill, I have an article about a little-known dip into the pork barrel: big bonuses for congressional staff if there’s money left over at the end of the year, especially if the money will fall into the hands of the other party at the end of the year.

How can there be money left over when the government is running multi-hundred-billion dollar deficits? Well, you might ask. But each department has its own appropriation, and those accounts often have “money left in the budget” as the end of the year approaches, necessitating the famous end-of-the-year spending spree.

In the congressional case, I found examples like this on committee staff budgets:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee showed similar patterns. In 2005, when the Republican leadership was spending its “own money” on year-end bonuses, several staffers received less than 10 percent of their annual salaries, while a few lucky staffers received extra payments of as much as 17 percent.

But when GOP Energy and Commerce bosses faced losing their chairmanship after the 2006 election, they decided to leave no dollar behind for the Democrats. Lucky staffers then got windfalls of 31 percent on a $35,000 salary, 30 percent on a $50,000 salary, 18 percent on a $100,000 salary, and so on. At least 15 committee staffers got bonuses of between $11,000 and $17,600.

And I concluded, cheekily:

Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they choose, up to an annual ceiling, so there’s nothing illegal about year-end bonuses, even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses.

But this pattern illustrates a big difference between the private and public sectors. In the private sector, if your customers become dissatisfied with your product, you tend to make less money. In the public sector, you get a couple of months to double-dip before you lose control of the money. For participating in a Congress that voters booted out of office, these bonuses are a handsome parting gift.

A big tip of the hat to Cato interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod for poring over payroll records, and to LegiStorm for making such information about Congress public and accessible.

The Republicans’ Magic Budget Machine

In an article on the 2007 Virginia legislative elections, the Washington Post reports:

GOP candidates will also make the argument that if the party retains control, it would mean lower taxes, controls on development and more education spending.

Lower taxes AND more spending on good stuff – it’s hard to beat that combination. And it’s worked so well at the federal level. But it may be harder to deliver in a state that’s required to balance its budget.

America’s “Public Squalor” Versus Europe’s “Social Justice”

A British member of the European Parliament urges approval of the new European Union constitution (now being called a reform treaty in an effort to preclude a referendum), arguing in the Guardian that it will promote European-style solidarity rather than the American-style squalor. Yet according to both the IMF and the World Bank, per capita GDP is $8,500 higher in the United States (nearly $13,000 higher according to the CIA and $9,800 higher according to the OECD) than it is in the United Kingdom. As for the less fortunate, a left-wing think tank published a report last year showing that poor people in America have more income than poor people in the U.K. (see Figure 8D). The international data suggests that the European social model does a good job preserving the self-interest of the political class and a crummy job helping people improve their lives:

The reform treaty will explicitly commit European governments to defend and strengthen the European social model. It will enshrine the values of social justice, full employment and solidarity in the EU’s “mission statement” and commit the EU to “a social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress”. Similarly, the treaty emphasizes that the EU must work to “combat social exclusion and discrimination”, and will be legally required to promote social justice, gender equality and solidarity between generations. It is values such as these that clearly differentiate the EU from the American model of capitalism that allows private wealth and public squalor. …The overwhelming majority of our socialist colleagues across Europe support the reform treaty, despite some reservations, precisely because it will enshrine the European social model.

The Blue Dog Fraud

Many of the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives campaigned as fiscally conservative independents, but the Wall Street Journal reveals that these so-called blue-dog Democrats generally have been supporters of higher taxes and bigger government. Too bad these fiscal frauds aren’t more like the “Boll Weevil” Democrats, members of Congress who provided the margin of victory for many reforms to limit the burden of government during the Reagan years:

So far this year the blue dogs have been almost all bark when it comes to fiscal restraint and debt reduction. Thirty of the 48 have voted for every one of the non-defense spending bills their committee chairman have sent them. …28 of the 48 blue dogs voted “no” on each of the 27 amendments that Republicans proposed to cut the costs of these bills. …Voting records from recent years confirm that the blue dogs are less than consistent spending hawks. The National Taxpayers Union did some checking and found that the blue dogs had an average fiscal score of 24 out of 100, earning them a grade of D as a group. It also found that last year the blue dogs sponsored $145 of new spending for every dollar of budget reductions, for a net spending increase per member of more than $140 billion. The blue dogs are consistent on one fiscal issue: stopping tax cuts. As a group they opposed the Bush tax cuts and the extension of those tax cuts, and a super-majority vote requirement to raise taxes–all in the name of easing the debt burden on future generations. But those concerns evaporated when all but nine in the blue dog coalition voted to expand the Schip health-care program to include many middle-class families, at a cost of $132.6 billion over the 2008-2017 period.

Politics Today

The Washington Post reports today that John Edwards’s new strategy is to reposition himself as a “straight talker,” emulating the model that worked for John McCain in 2000. As someone said, “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Meanwhile, the Post also tells us about the lifelong congressional insider who’s helping Barack Obama craft his image as a Washington outsider.

What a country. It reminds me of the presidential campaign manager who once told me, “We’ve made a tentative decision to run a bold campaign.”

No Veterans of Foreign Wars Need Apply

“As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern — veterans of foreign wars,” writes Peter Baker in the Washington Post, contrasting this year’s campaign with past election years.

Baker grades both former presidents and current candidates on a steep curve. He writes, “Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush served.” But LBJ, already a congressman, went on investigative missions for FDR, admittedly flying around the South Pacific combat zone. And the nearsighted Ronald Reagan made propaganda films in Los Angeles. He even counts George W. Bush as a veteran on the basis of his Texas Air National Guard service.

As for the current candidates, 

“The torch is being passed to a new generation that’s never worn a uniform,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. “It’s a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation.”

But is that really true? The leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a man born in 1961. But John Edwards, born in 1953, Bill Richardson (1947), and Joe Biden (1941) are not “the post-Vietnam generation.” They’re the non-Vietnam generation. A blogger has some more details about the Vietnam records of 2008 candidates here.

As for the Republicans, John McCain famously served, as Baker notes. But Mitt Romney (1947), Rudy Giuliani (1944), Fred Thompson (1942), and Newt Gingrich (1947) are, like their Democratic counterparts, within the age cohorts who went to Vietnam. They weren’t post-Vietnam, just nowhere-near-Vietnam. Mike Huckabee (1955) and Sam Brownback (1956), along with Barack Obama, would seem to the only candidates who are actually from the post-Vietnam generation.

Does this matter? It used to matter to voters. When I asked my parents in the 1960s, about 20 years after the end of World War II, why all the local candidates listed themselves as veterans on all their campaign literature, my mother told me that you’d wonder what was wrong with a man who hadn’t served in “the war.” Today, some worry that military veterans might be more eager to go to war. Historian Jackson sees it differently: “When you have leaders who haven’t gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit,” he told the Post. “It’s a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war … are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war’s about, and they’re less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians.”

That reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, often denounced as militaristic or even fascist, especially by people who have only seen the movie. In the novel, only military veterans were citizens with voting rights. But the basis for that was classical republicanism: that only those who were willing to defend the society, and who by facing combat had come to understand the real meaning of power and war and violence, could be trusted to lead the society.

At the very least, candidates who have never served in a war should have some special humility in urging that other Americans be sent to war.