Obama Charges Foreign Influence Supporting Republicans

President Obama and the Democrats are charging the Chamber of Commerce of funneling foreign money into ads for Republicans. It's a desperate move unlikely to work.

President Obama and the Democrats are making a rather odd ploy for votes: Attacking the Chamber of Commerce and insinuating that it’s secretly funneling money to Republican campaigns.

The White House intensified its attacks Sunday on the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its alleged ties to foreign donors, part of an escalating Democratic effort to link Republican allies with corporate and overseas interests ahead of the November midterm elections. The chamber adamantly denies that foreign funds are used in its U.S. election efforts, accusing Democrats of orchestrating a speculative smear campaign during a desperate political year.

President Obama, speaking at a rally in Philadelphia, said “the American people deserve to know who is trying to sway their elections” and raised the possibility that foreigners could be funding his opponents. “You don’t know,” Obama said at the rally for Senate candidate Joe Sestak and other Democrats. “It could be the oil industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose.”

The remarks are part of a volley of recent attacks by Obama and other Democrats on alleged foreign influence within the Republican caucus, whether through support for outsourcing jobs by major U.S. corporations or through overseas money making its way into the coffers of GOP-leaning interest groups.

The comments also come as Democrats attempt to cope with an onslaught of independent political advertising aimed at bolstering Republicans, much of it fueled by donations that do not have to be revealed to the public. The spending has added to a political environment in which Democrats are in danger of losing control of both the House and Senate.

David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that secret political donations to the chamber and other groups pose “a threat to our democracy.” Axelrod also took the unusual step of calling on the chamber to release internal documents backing up its contention that foreign money is not being used to pay for U.S. political activities. Democrats have seized on a report by a liberal blog alleging that dues from chamber-affiliated business councils could be used in that way. “If the chamber opens up its books and says, ‘Here’s where our political money’s coming from,’ then we’ll know,” Axelrod said. “But until they do that, all we have is their assertion.”

Of course, all we have the other way is the Democrats’ assertion.  And will Americans otherwise predisposed to vote Republican in November really change their mind on vague assertions that the Chamber is funneling foreign money into their campaigns?

Apparently, the impetus for all this is last week’s  reporting from Think Progress that I’d missed until now.  It’s rather convoluted — making its likely impact on next month’s voting even more unlikely — but, essentially, the argument goes like this:

  • The Chamber is the chief outside group buying ads for Republican candidates
  • These ads are paid for out of the Chamber’s general fund
  • The Chamber accepts foreign donations through its overseas Business Councils
  • Thus, foreign money is used for the ads
  • Additionally, a 527 called American Crossroads, which Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are affiliated with, is coordinating spending with the Chamber.  And who knows where American Crossroads is getting the money?  Maybe it’s from foreigners!

For their part, both the Chamber and American Crossroads have denied that foreign money is going toward these ads, asserting that they have firewalls in place.  Absent strong evidence to the contrary, I’m inclined to believe them.    After all, money is fungible.  So, the Chamber doesn’t need to use foreign money to fund political advertising — which is presumably still illegal — when all they have to do is use the foreign money to finance legal activities and shift the domestic money that would have funded said activities over to advertising.    (Now, effectively, there is no difference!  Legally, though, it’s the difference between night and day.)

I suppose that, given the polling numbers, Obama and company have to try something.   Certainly, “We’re doing a great job and you should give us two more years” isn’t going to cut it.  But this is not only desperate but it’s the kind of inside baseball that will just irritate voters.    I guarantee you that if I’m just now getting wind of this week-old blog story, nobody at that rally in Philly had any idea what the hell Obama was talking about.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    “For their part, both the Chamber and American Crossroads have denied that foreign money is going toward these ads, asserting that they have firewalls in place. Absent strong evidence to the contrary, I’m inclined to believe them. After all, money is fungible.”

    Er… yes Jim. And which voters is it going to irritate? Get real he’s just drawing attention to the vast amounts of money which corporate America has poured into this election below the radar. Most people have a vague sense this is going on since it’s been widely covered in the media (if you’ve just picked it up from blogs you must have been asleep). Republican voters won’t care, Democrats will care, Genuine independants may be made a bit uneasy about it and to that extent it will work to the Dem’s advantage. It’s a marginal issue but there’s probably a few votes in it either because of the aforesaid independant uneasiness or increased Democrat energization. You may think it’s a good idea that special interests can secretly pour vast amounts of cash into to elections but I’m not sure that conceptualy it’s something Americans are comfortable with.

  2. john personna says:

    Convoluted? Seriously?

    Foreign funds go into the general fund and out again to run ads. Simple.

    Now, you set a high bar (strawman?) with whether it will “work” I think. In what sense? Just that it has more costs than benefits to talk about it? I’d think not.

    I can’t see a downside, not in the sense that you are going to stand up and say “yes, foreign corporations should be funding our politicians and shaping our globalization policy!”

    (I guess I’m thinking that if “convoluted” is the best you can come up with in your partisan defense, it’s already over for you.)

  3. James Joyner says:

    Voters get irritated when politicians talk inside baseball issues.

    The Supreme Court has said that Americans can get together and funnel as much money as they’d like into political campaigns. It’s free speech.

  4. john personna says:

    P.S. – Maybe it would be less “convoluted” if the group (groups?) openned their books. Would you support that? Or would you take a partisan defensive position that more light would be dangerous?

  5. mpw280 says:

    They certainly shouldn’t try something that they are guilty of, though I guess the press will mostly cover for the Obama campaigns lack of foreign filters on online credit card donations. mpw

  6. Tano says:

    “After all, money is fungible. So, the Chamber doesn’t need to use foreign money to fund political advertising — ”

    I don’t understand this James. If money is fungible, and it obviously is, then there is no such thing as “foreign” money. Once it hits the Chamber’s bank account, it is simply money. There are foreign _sources_ of their money, along with domestic sources, and that is something that they do not deny.

    Do you really think these ‘firewalls” have any real meaning? They are anything other than conceptual distinctions drawn to give the impression that certain standards are being adhered to?

    It is the Chamber’s job to advocate for the interests of large corporations – that is why they receive this money in the first place. Some of those corporations are foreign-based, most have foreign operations, and all of them have concerns that are quite different than the concerns of average Americans. Of course there is “foreign money” fueling the Chamber’s advocacy, as there are “foreign” concerns that shape its policy proposals.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 09:19
    “Voters get irritated when politicians talk inside baseball issues”

    Total rubbish. If you think voters are unconcerned about foreign influence given the widespread xenophobia in the country (much of it on the Republican side) then you’ve clearly forgotten Dubai Ports and similar incidents.

    And on the supreme court decision such polling has has been done suggests it wasn’t a particularly popular decision. People weren’t awfully exercised about it but there is huge distrust of “special interests” which in most people’s minds is big business.

  8. john personna says:

    Don’t we have a smoking gun in the form of Chamber letters sent overseas, to raise money specficially to support globalization?

    In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC

    If they raised funds for US politics overseas, any claim of firewalls will be moot.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @john persona: “I guess I’m thinking that if “convoluted” is the best you can come up with in your partisan defense, it’s already over for you.”

    It’s not a defense. Nothing need’s defending: What the Chamber is doing is perfectly legal. I’m assessing the viability of this attack as a political strategy and saying that it’s not the kind of thing that will have any salience with the voters. It’s complicated and not obviously wrong.

    “Maybe it would be less “convoluted” if the group (groups?) openned their books. Would you support that? Or would you take a partisan defensive position that more light would be dangerous?”

    I happen to think that full disclosure of where money’s coming from would be a good idea. I would have far preferred a rule requiring near-instant disclosure than the silly provisions of McCain-Feingold. But SCOTUS has opened the doors for this, so I don’t understand why Chamber should “open its books” to allow a fishing expedition.

    @Tano: “If money is fungible, and it obviously is, then there is no such thing as “foreign” money. Once it hits the Chamber’s bank account, it is simply money.”

    That’s what I said. But Obama and Co. are calling it “foreign money.”

  10. john personna says:

    mpw280, by all means investigate that credit card thing. If I recall correctly Dems have taken this hit before, with Gore’s acceptance of the red envelope (cultural reference) from the Taiwanese.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    mpw280 says:
    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 09:20

    Another believer in democracy with a small d who thinks it’s just fine for special interests to secretly pour money into US elections and effectively buy them.

  12. john personna says:

    Sorry James, sophistry is what it is.

    (You shouldn’t to it, when it is quite so obvious, for your own sake.)

  13. john personna says:

    BTW, on the “fungible” thing, I don’t see why you think that helps you. Fungible money from foreigners can buy interest. Certainly. The fact that they can shift American money from paying light bills to paying commercials, while shifting (say) Japanese money to paying light bills isn’t a rational defense. It’s insane.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 09:37
    ” What the Chamber is doing is perfectly legal. I’m assessing the viability of this attack as a political strategy and saying that it’s not the kind of thing that will have any salience with the voters.”

    No one is disputing that a conservative dominated court made this legal. But the notion that the public are totally disinterested in special or foreign interests “buying” elections is completely specious. I don’t say it’s the major issue by any means but it certainly has resonance both at the margins and in aggregate. What’s perhaps more interesting is that you personally as a political scientist this issue cause you no concern.

  15. floyd says:

    Maybe it would be less “convoluted” if the group (groups?) openned their books.

    … And show us their donor’s Hawaiian birth certificates, surely they have some printed up for just such an occassion. [LOL]

    Geesh! Talk about grasping at (their) straws ! Pathetic.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    floyd says:
    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 09:57
    “Geesh! Talk about grasping at (their) straws ! Pathetic.”

    I told you Republicans don’t really care about special or foreign interests influencing American elections. This view is by no means universal, however, whatever Jim and others may believe.

  17. john personna says:

    Oh yeah floyd, I get the logic. Since the Hawaiian birth certificates are stupid, no one should ever show their paperwork again.

    Inform the foreclosure courts, will you?

  18. john personna says:

    BTW, to back up to the big picture:

    I oppose campaign spending limits because I think they can all, always, be gamed.

    On the other hand, I support full disclosure of where every penny in political spending comes from.

    It is therefore consistent with my philosophy on this to say that disclosure is the answer. Not just here, but also with Gore’s red envelope, and mpw’s credit cards.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: BTW, on the “fungible” thing, I don’t see why you think that helps you.

    Because it makes the issue moot. Because money’s fungible, the Chamber has no incentive to risk getting caught breaking the law. The money being used here is “domestic.”

    But the notion that the public are totally disinterested in special or foreign interests “buying” elections is completely specious.

    I’ve seen very little evidence that they care about it in general. There have been some egregious cases, such as the Swift Boaters, that caught some flak. But I don’t know that anyone cared about the “special interest” aspect.

    What’s perhaps more interesting is that you personally as a political scientist this issue cause you no concern.

    Even if the Chamber is raising money overseas from some dubious groups, there’s zero evidence that they’re representing those dubious interests. Rather, they’re using said money to finance existing activities, in turn allowing them to funnel domestic funds to fund commercials. But nobody’s charging that they’re doing anything other than backing candidates that the Chamber itself supports.

    To me that’s a very different thing than a foreign interest setting up a dummy 527 to further its own agenda. THAT I’d be concerned about.

  20. John Personna says:

    It will come down to their communications.

    If the offered to influence policy for foreigners, then that’s what they did.

    To defend the shell game at that point would be inexcusable.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Monday, October 11, 2010 at 10:27

    “But I don’t know that anyone cared about the “special interest” aspect.”

    Americans are unconcerned about special interests controlling the political process? Well that’s not what a lot of polls tell us and its seem inherently unlikely to me. I don’t say it’s the major issue by a long chalk but it certainly resonates which why much of say Brown’s, Boxer’s and Blumenthal’s advertising has been targeted at election “buying.”

    ” But nobody’s charging that they’re doing anything other than backing candidates that the Chamber itself supports.”

    Ok you’re confirming that you have no problem with “special interests” deploying large sums to buy elections so that they can ultimately skew the political process in their favor. The same applies to unions btw. This is the issue and it obviously doesn’t bother you that it might not be for the public good.

  22. mantis says:

    The money being used here is “domestic.”

    Prove it.

  23. Juneau says:

    I’ve got a good idea. Why don’t we hold the Chamber of Commerce to the same standard that was used to verify the sources that funded Obama’s election campaign? Absolutely no tracking verification would be needed, and foreign entities could simply donate anonymously over the phone.

    Oh wait, that’s only OK if your a Democrat. Darn….

  24. Juneau says:

    @ Personna

    To defend the shell game at that point would be inexcusable.

    There’s nothing to defend. The issue is so obviously manufactured that even Sheiffer knows its just a last-ditch act of desperation on the part of Democrats to throw mud and see if it sticks. Sheiffer to Axelrod- ” And that’s the best you can do?”

    Game over, boys. Get used to it, ’cause losing is going to become the norm for any liberal politician that followed Obama-Pelosi-Reid into the abyss.

  25. john personna says:

    I don’t suppose you can even see the difference, Juneau, between me saying “if there are such memos” to you certifying that there are none. Can you?

  26. Juneau: says:

    @ Personna

    Your pretensions of impartiality and fairness are not convincing. On the contrary, you are clearly on board with the notion that the Chamber should do what the Obama election campaign emphatically resisted – revealing the source of all funds coming in. However, unlike the Obama campaign, the Chamber has no credible evidence against it. In fact, at this stage of the game you are simply grasping at straws along with your fellows. Its becoming a bit pitiable….

  27. Rick DeMent says:

    It’s not a defense. Nothing need’s defending: What the Chamber is doing is perfectly legal.

    So is abortion, I suppose you think that doesn’t need defending?

    Personally I’m glad the Democrats are finally taking a page out of the GOP playbook. Sure anyone with a brain won’t buy it, but god judging my the number of Palin / O’Donnell supporters out there the stupid vote seems to be a rich vein.

    As for the whole Money = speech idea, worst SCOTUS decision since Dred Scott and very anti-democratic (and should hardly be though of as constitutional to anyone who has ever actually read the debate over the bill of rights).

  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Personally I’m glad the Democrats are finally taking a page out of the GOP playbook…but god judging my the number of Palin / O’Donnell supporters out there the stupid vote seems to be a rich vein. ”

    This issue isn’t going away. As you say a rich vein of not over bright middle class people who think the Chamber is looking out for them. I know from my own experience that there is often uneasiness over the extreme partisanship of the Chamber which is basically being managed by Republican political operatives. This accounts for the high level defections that have occurred over the past few years.

  29. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Mantis, they do not have to. If you are making a charge? Go ahead. But be ready for the law suit that will follow. The DCCC has left itself open to legal action for the ads they ran. Smears are one thing, allegations of illegal activity are another.