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Left can't blame money in politics for policy failures

Left can't blame money in politics for policy failures

March 16th, 2019 by Ramesh Ponnuru in Opinion Columns

Both of our political parties are dominated by people who believe that the American people are fundamentally on their side. When they face political setbacks, then, there must be some nefarious explanation for the thwarting of the people's will.

For contemporary Republicans, that explanation is likely to involve the media or the "deep state." For Democrats, it will probably include money in politics.

On the left, it's the go-to theory for why progressive policies haven't already been adopted. Why hasn't the federal government taken strong action to fight climate change? It must be due to the influence of the fossil-fuel industry. Why doesn't serious gun control ever get traction in Congress even when polls seem to back it? It's because of the National Rifle Association's contributions to campaigns.

Writing in the Washington Post, Helaine Olen argues that most people support Medicare for All but are blocked by special interests—hospitals, insurers, drug makers—who stand to lose from the idea. If the system seems stacked against the idea, it's because the system is "corrupt."

The progressive impulse to blame campaign spending for political disappointments is one reason House Democrats just passed HR 1, a package of changes to the political system that includes new restrictions on political spending and public financing of campaigns. Among the bill's "findings": "The torrent of money flowing into our political system has a profound effect on the democratic process for everyday Americans, whose voices and policy preferences are increasingly being drowned out by those of wealthy special interests."

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, has repeatedly caused controversy even among Democrats by attributing American support for Israel to the power of money. It's "all about the Benjamins," she notoriously tweeted (she later apologized). These remarks and others have led to charges that she is an anti-Semite.

Examined in isolation, though, the comment about pro-Israel money was just the application of a common left-wing idea to an unusually sensitive context. When you say that support for the Jewish state, specifically, reflects the use of money to buy influence, people are understandably upset.

But moneyed interests don't play nearly as large a role in high-profile political controversies as progressives sometimes think. The fossil-fuel industry is politically influential, to be sure. But it's not responsible for surveys showing that 68 percent of Americans are unwilling to pay an extra $10 in monthly electric bills to combat climate change.

The NRA, meanwhile, would have nearly no power if it weren't for the fact that millions of Americans share its views about guns and are more inclined than other people to vote on the issue. Support for Israel has much the same political basis: Most Americans favor it, and a significant minority favors it intensely.

It's not corruption that stands in the way of Medicare for All proposals, either. Most Americans with insurance are satisfied with their insurance and don't want to see the government force them into new arrangements—which is why President Barack Obama kept insisting, during the sales pitch for Obamacare, that it would allow people who liked their health plans to keep them.

I'm not saying that campaign spending never affects legislative outcomes or that regulation of it is never necessary. I suspect that contributions can secure tax loopholes and regulatory carve-outs: the kind of government favors to which "everyday Americans" don't pay much attention and consequently have no policy preferences to be "drowned out." It may be, too, that the campaign-finance system our regulations have created distorts politicians' perspectives by putting them too frequently in the company of rich people.

But our government puts many obstacles between apparent popular majorities and policy victories. Republicans have ideological commitments to deregulation that can sometimes conflict with and even thwart public opinion, just as Democrats have their own commitments.

Typically when progressives claim that they would have gotten their way on an issue if not for political corruption, they are making an excuse. They are failing to face up to the real obstacle, which is that Americans disagree among themselves—and millions of them oppose left-wing objectives.

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