Bad news, Republicans — Democrats figured out The Secret of Citizens United. At least that seems to be the outrage over this report about Joe Biden’s record-breaking advantage in “dark money,” amplified by Fox News today from a Bloomberg report over the weekend. Fox’s Megan Henney leans heavily into the hypocrisy angle of a political party taking money through channels it opposes.
Even then, however, it’s clear that this is less singular than the headlines suggest:
For years, Democrats have railed against anonymous campaign contributions as a uniquely corrupting political force — even as President Biden benefited from a record-shattering amount of “dark money” donations during the 2020 election.
A report published by Bloomberg News shows that Biden raked in about $145 million in donations from anonymous donors to outside groups backing him, far outstripping the $28.4 million spent on behalf of his rival, former President Donald Trump. It also tops the previous record of $113 million in dark money donations spent on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
For instance, Priorities USA Action Fund, one of the most prominent Democratic super PACs supporting Biden, used $26 million in funds originally donated to its nonprofit arm, called Priorities USA, to back the then-candidate, according to Bloomberg. The donors of that money do not need to be disclosed.
Critics of dark money, which obscures the source of the funds, argue that voters should know who’s funding political advertisements and campaigns. The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group, has called it a “serious threat to our democracy,” and Issue One, another nonpartisan group that aims to reduce the influence of money in politics, has called it “the most toxic force in politics.”
Although Democrats have previously introduced legislation to crack down on dark money donations, it did not stop them from accepting anonymous donations themselves as they fought to defeat Trump.
Of course it didn’t. Did anyone expect that it would? After losing the Citizens United fight, Democrats instead adopted the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them strategy — wisely, as it turns out. At least that was a bit more constitutional than the McCain-Feingold approach, which played favorites with independent-group donations and expenditures. There’s nothing hypocritical about playing by the same rules as your opponent, albeit there might be something hypocritical about denouncing the mechanism at the same time you’re leveraging it. Especially if you keep griping about it being “uniquely corrupting.”
We’ll get back to that in a moment. The outside “dark money” donations were a drop in the bucket anyway, as the Bloomberg report made clear, and were hardly the difference in the election. Biden’s campaign and the DNC combined to raise $1.5 billion, which means dark money only accounted for less than 10% of the resources Democrats mustered:
Biden’s winning campaign was backed by $145 million in so-called dark money donations, a type of fundraising Democrats have decried for years. Those fundraising streams augmented Biden’s $1.5 billion haul, in itself a record for a challenger to an incumbent president. …
Biden raised more than $1 billion for his campaign, which can accept donations of up to $2,800 per election from individuals. That included $318.6 million from donors who gave less than $200 each. The rest of the money Biden raised came from donors with pockets deep enough to give as much as $825,000, with that money being divided among the Democratic National Committee and 47 state parties.
With that in mind, it’s tough to see how the dark money is “uniquely corrupting,” especially since its donors remain, y’know, anonymous. The donations of $825K have much more potential for corruption, given the identification of the donors and the hefty investment being made into the campaigns. And we know that this is more effective, because we don’t see dark-money donors getting choice appointments to diplomatic posts. We do see the big-ticket party donors heading off to Vanuatu, Fiji, Ireland, and so on in administrations of both parties, and the Biden administration will surely not be an exception to this.
(Unless, of course, they want to embrace my #Morrissey4Ireland campaign. I’ve offered a $5 contribution to both of the last two administrations in return for being named ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, and I’m willing to re-up for the hat trick. You might scoff that the number is too low, but I’ll remind you that we’ve already established what the process is, and now we’re just haggling over the price.)
Anyway, the dark-money shrieking has now become just as bipartisan as deficit spending. Both parties love to shriek about dark money and deficit spending when the election puts them in the minority and they can’t do anything about either. Once they take control, neither party pays them much attention.