The Koch Bogeymen
The billionaire brothers inspire the liberal imagination to heights of paranoia and outrage.

David Koch


Matthew Continetti

Beleaguered, adrift, defensive, angry, eager to escape from attacks on Obamacare, President Obama and his allies have a secret weapon with which to rally their base. This voice-activated device is incredibly easy to use. One need only utter the words “Koch brothers,” and the financial apparatus of the Democratic party begins to whir.

Connecting the billionaires of the Democracy Alliance to the labor, green, and race groups of the Democracy Initiative, linking the trial lawyers and Hollywood producers to the Democratic National Committee and campaign committees, tying in the bumper-sticker activists to Ready for Hillary, the Democratic money machine generates a lot of energy indeed. E-mails are sent. Articles are written. Checks are cut. And the Democratic Senate might survive Election Day 2014.

The weapon was put to use on December 19 when Organizing for Action, the White House advocacy group, sent a mass e-mail with the following subject line: “Team Obamacare . . . or Team Koch Brothers?” Here, after more than two months of bad news for President Obama’s signature law, was the last play of the Obamacare supporter. “Health care reform is helping millions of Americans today,” the e-mail said. “But people like the Koch Brothers are trying to take it away. Which side are you on?”

Advertisement may be broken, insurance plans may have been canceled by the millions, enrollments may be lower than expected, the ratio of old to young and sick to healthy customers may yet cripple the program, but at least the president is opposed to a pair of septuagenarian libertarian billionaires living in Wichita and New York. You too can show your dislike of these senior citizens, and join “the group that’s fighting back — every single day,” all for the affordable price of $15 or $1,000 or, if you are feeling generous, some “other amount.” As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Organizing for Action can receive unlimited contributions. So pony up.

I was reminded of the Organizing for Action solicitation the other day when I read in the paper that “Ads Attacking Health Law Stagger Outspent Democrats.” The article, by Carl Hulse, reported that “since September, Americans for Prosperity, a group financed in part by the billionaire Koch brothers, has spent an estimated $20 million on television advertising that calls out House and Senate Democrats by name for their support of the Affordable Care Act.”

According to Hulse, “strategists in both parties agree” that such advertising has made Democrats “increasingly anxious,” because many of the incumbents called out by name “lack the resources to fight back.” In North Carolina, for example, where incumbent senator Kay Hagan is scared to appear in public with President Obama, Americans for Prosperity is thought to have spent some $5 million on negative ads, whereas the Democratic Senate Majority PAC has spent $1.5 million in her defense. The director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gets to the point: “Democrats need money at this early stage in order to fight back against the limitless spending of the Kochs.”

A front-page article in the New York Times is not as slick as the Millennial-friendly infographics in an Organizing for Action e-mail, nor is it as cutting or witty or emphatic or precocious, but it is taken more seriously, and its audience is more elite. Both texts serve the same purpose: alerting Democratic donors to a potential weakness, an emergency, and the necessity of financial reinforcements. Both texts contain the magic words — “Koch brothers” — that inspire the liberal imagination to heights of fear, paranoia, outrage, and self-regard. There are no dog whistles here, no signals audible only to a special class. The cry is as articulate as it is deafening. Democratic incumbents need money. Make checks payable to DNC, DSCC, DCCC, and the Majority PAC. Pronto.

It was the urgent tone of the Times article, the impression it gave of innocents under assault, that reminded me of a piece of spam. It is a style more appropriate to advertising than to news. The everyday reader of the Times might assume that the big bad Republicans have the little red Democrats hopelessly outgunned. But that would be a mistake. Not mentioned in the Hulse piece, nor in the Times at all, is Michael Bloomberg’s recent $2.5 million donation to Majority PAC. As of January 15 of this year, Senate Democrats have outraised and outspent Republicans, as have the DSCC and the DCCC. While the RNC has outraised and outspent the DNC, the Democratic party has outraised and out-spent the Republican party as a whole. And though Republicans in recent years have had an advantage in outside spending, one need only look at this page to see that Democratic outside groups are just as prominent, and just as profligate, as Republican ones. Contrary to the DSCC spokesman quoted in the Times, the Koch brothers are not the only donors who engage in “limitless spending.” On the contrary: In 2013 alone, a handful of rich liberals spent more than $25 million influencing politics. In 2014 they will spend more.


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