There was a piece in Politico last week that did an impressive job of simultaneously capturing and embodying why so much of America thinks our political system sucks. The headline read “Elite Donors Dodge the DNC,” and the gist was that the Obama administration has so badly bungled the care and feeding of big-money contributors that fat cat Dems aren’t flocking to write their party big checks at the same rate rich Republicans did when the Bushies ran this town. Oh, sure, Politico acknowledges, “the DNC’s fundraising is humming along at a record pace,” but last year’s haul was nowhere near the level of money-grubbing achieved by the RNC under similar one-party rule. And a prime reason, Politico posits, is that only 10 percent of the president’s biggest fundraisers, many of whom are “chafing at not getting enough love from the administration,” have ponied up the max.
A special raspberry went out to the recently kicked-to-the-curb Desiree Rogers for, among other sins, failing to make sure important supporters got their White House Christmas cards. Another notable outrage was not inviting enough big donors to the state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. One dissed contributor huffed that the event was treated more like “a big staff party” than an opportunity to smooch the backsides of those who’d worked long and hard to fund Obama’s campaign. (Admittedly, the contributor didn’t put it in those exact terms.) More broadly, according to Politico’s interviews and its perusal of White House visitor logs, the Obamas have thus far failed to invite major funders to nearly as many private White House tours, holiday parties, Camp David sleepovers, and private legislative briefings as did their predecessors.
But all is not lost, Politico assures us. Among other signs that lessons are being learned in Obamaland, Rogers’s replacement will be Julianna Smoot, who “brings a variety of strengths to the job: She’s detail-oriented, she’s a strong manager, and she knows both the political and the donor worlds.” “A lot of things need to be fixed,” one White House insider confided.
Well, color me happy. How nice to hear that this administration will at last begin showing big donors the proper degree of pucker. By all means, screw change we can believe in. Let’s stick with the tried-and-true model of giving the most attention, access, and deference to those who fork over the most cash. Financially aiding a presidential candidate who shares your progressive governing vision is all well and good, but, honestly, what’s the point if the guy doesn’t invite you over for movie night from time to time?
I realize all the rich Dems who tirelessly squeezed checks out of their rich friends for the campaign just want to feel appreciated. Fat cats need love too. But wasn’t part of Obama’s explicit appeal his vow to move politics away from the business-as-usual, pay-for-access mentality? For big-money Dems to jump on that bandwagon and then get their panties in a bunch when Obama tries to stick with that whole “change” mantra suggests a pathological arrogance: I knew he’d keep all those other losers at arm’s length, but I assumed he’d make an exception for me.
Besides, didn’t much of America—including establishment Washington and high-minded liberals—spend several years loudly and self-righteously denouncing the oh-so-vulgar Clintons for taking donor maintenance to new and creative lows? I can remember the tut-tutting over the White House kaffeeklatsches like it was yesterday. And with all the finger-wagging about how Bill and Hill violated the sanctity of the Lincoln bedroom, you’d have thought the First Couple was running hookers out of the joint.
Today, it seems, we are supposed to be amazed at the way the Obama White House has dropped the ball on something so basic as sucking up. This, at least, is the breathless storyline being pedaled by Politico: If this president doesn’t climb down off his high horse and get busy “reenergizing major donors”—which the piece points out is “one of the quickest ways to fill the Democrats’ war chest”—slights like the forgotten holiday cards could result in “major repercussions in a year when the Democratic National Committee is going to need every possible resource to help the party’s congressional committees stave off major losses in the midterm elections.”
Indeed, to some degree, it’s hard to tell precisely how exercised big donors are versus how hard Politico is trying to generate buzz. Despite its alarmist frame, the piece is sprinkled with caveats—including that the DNC is, in fact, raising piles of cash, that it’s enjoying a rare funding edge over the RNC, that it is contending with other challenges (like the Obama-imposed prohibition on donations from lobbyists and PACs), and that most of the donors contacted say they do not feel neglected by the White House (although, what self-respecting liberal would admit to being miffed that his contribution hadn’t bought more ass-kissing?). So maybe, hopefully, this is at least partially a case of journalistic overreach. Plenty of donors surely wish Obama would pitch a little more woo their way, but the idea that a significant number would sit on their checkbooks out of pique is too depressing. With pathetic, self-important friends like that, who needs political enemies?
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.