Joel Fox's Secret Money

While I’m on the subject of Jerry Brown’s whining, let me point out that one of his whines is entirely justified: It’s outrageous and beyond the pale that Joel Fox and the campaign against Props 30 and for 32 are polluting the election with an anonymous $11 million laundered through an Arizona “non-profit,” Americans for Responsible Leadership, which lists among its public purposes — you can’t make this stuff up — “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics….”

For years right wingers have been opposing restrictions on campaign contributions. All that’s needed, they told us, is sunshine. Early in the George W. Bush years, when Congress was considering and then passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, conservatives offered as an alternative the bill called DeLay-Doolittle—as I say, you can’t make this stuff up. It called for deregulating campaign finance and leaving only a robust requirement for electronic disclosure of all campaign contributions.

But as Mark Schmitt recently observed, the right wingers didn’t really mean it. They have now turned into full-throated opponents of disclosure as well, a position Joel Fox echoes in his limp defense of secret contributions.

Wrapping himself in The Federalist, which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay penned (quilled?) pseudonymously, Fox tries to defend anonymous speech as part of a great American tradition. (Funny, isn’t it, how it’s always Madison, not the Ku Klux Klan or the Weathermen, who gets used as the example in such arguments.)

But there’s a difference between speech and a campaign contribution. Speech makes an argument; the money of a campaign donation pays to distribute and amplify someone else’s speech. Money in politics is about power. It matters little to voters to know the name of the actress who speaks on Fox’s anti-Prop 30 television ads or the hack who put the words in her mouth. But it helps the public understand a lot to know the identity and motives of the people willing and able to contribute, with barely a second thought, more money than most voters will ever earn in a lifetime.

Fox whines (Jerry Brown isn’t the only whiner this week) that “it used to be ideas were central to policy debates. Now it’s about the donors.” Such a strange alternative America he inhabits, one where Republicans never campaigned against their opponents as the forces of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” where Teddy Roosevelt never railed against “malefactors of great wealth,” where candidates never called their Democratic opponents captives of teachers unions and trial lawyers. The notion that ideas, not power, are the currency of politics is something you’d expect from a naïve editorial writer, not a hard-bitten political operative.

Fox’s ideological brethren on the U.S. Supreme Court aren’t buying it. Even as they confused money with speech in the disastrous Citizens United decision, the court’s majority gave even more constitutional room for requiring disclosure: “Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” it said. In another case, Justice Antonin Scalia extolled disclosure as an essential character-building exercise: “[R]equiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Secret campaign contributions are for cowards and sissies.

As a matter of good government, Jerry Brown is right to make a fuss about Joel Fox’s masked contributors. As a matter of political strategy, he’s missing a great opportunity: to tell voters who he thinks are behind the mask.

As those of us in the news business have always said, where accurate information is blocked, rumor flourishes. We humans fill the unknown with our worst fears. If and when the truth comes out, we’ll likely find that Fox’s secret donors are just the usual collection of knuckle-dragging Bircher oilmen, Ayn-Rand spouting trust-fund babies, and assorted hedge fund and private equity social parasites who are funding the class war against the middle class and vital public services. But until the masks are removed, we have no alternative but to guess, and fill the unknown with our worst fears. Who can be so afraid to be seen standing up against Prop 30?

Here are my best guesses about the identity of Joel Fox’s secret donors: 1) Saudi supporters of al-Qaeda who seek to destroy California public schools and replace them with madrassas teaching our children Sharia law; 2) Chinese Communist leaders and generals seeking to destroy California public schools to weaken Silicon Valley and U.S. military strength; or 3) those most dread creatures in this campaign season—Joel Fox is getting secret donations from “Sacramento politicians.” Until Fox and his buddies take off the mask, any guess is fair and as good as another.

Please tell us, Jerry Brown, what’s your guess?