Barack Obama has conquered the Democratic Party. Now he intends to transform it.
"Part of what this campaign has been about is changing how our politics is done," he said last week in Michigan. He does not take money from registered federal lobbyists or from political action committees. Now he's insisting that the Democratic Party follow the same rules.
Obama said in Virginia, "As the Democratic nominee for president, I am announcing that, going forward, the Democratic National Committee will uphold the same standard. We will not take a dime from Washington lobbyists or special-interest PACs.... They will not fund my party, they will not run our White House, and they will not drown out the voice of the American people when I am president of the United States of America."
The change is not likely to have a major financial impact on the party. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the lobbying industry has not been a major financial contributor to the DNC since at least 1999, when record-keeping began. In the past five campaign cycles, lobbying has not ranked among the top 20 industries that have donated to the committee. The center's executive director, Sheila Krumholz, notes, "PACs made up less than 10 percent of DNC contributions in 2004. And most of that money comes from labor unions, who will take the money and spend it on '527' activities," that is, on independent expenditures and groups. "So it's still going to be spent," she added. "It just won't go through the party."
Nevertheless, Obama's move is politically significant for another reason. He is trying to institutionalize a new model of political fundraising. The old model was fat-cat fundraising: a small number of large contributions from rich people and special interests. The traditional alternative--public financing--has never gotten very far. It's too easy to defeat. All you have to do is ask voters, "Do you want your hard-earned tax money used to pay for those hateful political ads?" Only about 10 percent of taxpayers check off the box designating $3 of their tax payment for the presidential campaign.
How about a large number of small contributions from ordinary Americans? That is the system the public prefers. Ironically, it was John McCain who helped move the system in that direction by co-sponsoring the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which banned unlimited soft-money contributions to political parties. "I have a long record of fighting against the special interests," McCain, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in March. "I'm proud of that record." That particular record happens to be a sore point with many conservatives, who consider the measure an infringement on free speech.
"The Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been moving more toward small donors ever since the ban on soft money began in 2002," Krumholz said. "The Obama campaign has just taken it to an entirely new level."
The Internet has certainly made it easier for voters to give money to presidential campaigns. Howard Dean discovered the power of the Net when he ran for president in 2004. But something else is necessary to draw large numbers of $25 and $50 contributions over the Internet: passion. Obama is leading something more than a campaign. He is leading a movement. A campaign is a coalition of interests trying to get someone elected. A movement is a cause. If you are trying to get large numbers of ordinary Americans to give money, they have to believe in the cause.
The conservative movement is also a cause. That's why, for decades, the Republican Party has outraised the Democratic Party in small contributions. And that's why, this year, the GOP is outraising McCain, who is not a favorite of movement conservatives. The total raised by the Republican National Committee in 2007 and 2008: $135.3 million. The total raised by the McCain campaign: $93.2 million.
With the Democrats, the situation is reversed. Obama is the movement politician who has raised enormous amounts of money in small contributions: a total of $265.5 million. Contributions to the DNC have lagged far behind ($72.2 million). What Obama wants to do, now that he has won the nomination, is to make the Democratic Party part of his movement.
This article appears in the June 14, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.