Money changes everything

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Was I the only one amazed that the Republican presidential candidates who initially refused to appear at the CNN-sponsored YouTube debate first scheduled for next month actually stated as a reason for ducking the debate that they would rather be attending fundraisers that day instead of appearing at an interactive public event where questions would be posed exclusively by voters?

Was I the only one amazed that the Republican presidential candidates who initially refused to appear at the CNN-sponsored YouTube debate first scheduled for next month actually stated as a reason for ducking the debate that they would rather be attending fundraisers that day instead of appearing at an interactive public event where questions would be posed exclusively by voters?

And was I the only one surprised when the press failed to see the significance of the Republicans' priorities?

Think about it. Presidential candidates who, we're told, carefully craft year-long campaign messages in order to connect with voters, who are desperate to show themselves to be in touch with American citizens, declared they'd rather be hobnobbing with fat-cat donors on the proposed day of the September 17 debate. Why? Because the date fell so close to the end of the third-quarter fundraising cycle and the candidates wanted to beef up their bank accounts.

Does that sound like a campaign blunder that deserved close scrutiny? And does that sound like something that would have haunted a Democratic candidate for weeks as the press relentlessly highlighted a set of priorities that so cavalierly placed money ahead of voters?

(FYI, while notable Republican campaigns were annoyed by the September 17 date because it was just 13 days before the all-important, third-quarter fundraising deadline of September 30, Democrats quietly, and without protest, agreed to debate each other at Dartmouth College on September 26, less than 100 hours before the third-quarter fundraising bell rings.)

What's so peculiar is that for years the naked pursuit of campaign cash had been of great concern to the press corps. For instance, reporters and pundits wrung their hands endlessly about the amount of money Al Gore was raising in 2000, suggesting the process was corrupting the vice president.

Yet the same reporters and pundits failed to pounce on the GOP gaffe. In fact, they actually softened the YouTube storyline by reporting that vague "scheduling conflicts" had kept Republican wannabes from the September date for the debate; the issue of the fundraisers was quietly omitted by many news outlets. (Republican candidates also raised some doubts about the seriousness of the debate format.)

Other news organizations, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, did include early references to the GOP money chase getting in the way of the first YouTube date. But then in subsequent reporting, the uncomfortable fundraising mentions -- the most revealing part of the YouTube scheduling story -- were often dropped. In other words, what struck me as the lede (GOP candidates choose fundraising over an open debate) was soon viewed by the Times and the Post as not even being newsworthy.

As we now know, the YouTube debate has been safely re-scheduled for November 28, and most, if not all, of the Republican candidates are expected to attend. But before the story fades into memory, it's worth noting the extraordinary leeway the press gave the GOP hopefuls.

Reporters and pundits have made this much plain: The intersection of money and politics, as it pertains Republicans, is of no concern to them. We're told that fundraising methods, as well as personal wealth, can still tell us a lot about Democratic candidates. But the topics have been deemed meaningless when it comes to the Republican hopefuls. They're not to be discussed, and they're certainly not to be turned into campaign issues, or used as lenses through which voters are urged to view the candidates.

I'm sure John Edwards wishes Democrats were given that same kid-glove treatment from the press.

That Republican campaigns were so open about discussing such a losing political equation regarding the YouTube debate (money trumps voters) suggested to me that Republicans were (and are) keenly aware that the press will give them a completely free and unfettered ride whenever the issue of money comes up. Republican candidates simply do not have to concern themselves, the way their Democratic rivals do, with appearing hypocritical or ostentatious and just plain money-grubbing.

That's why the GOP campaigns were also amazingly blunt in stating their priorities:

  • "Every day you're debating is a day you're not raising money," one "GOP operative" told Time magazine.
  • "Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has turned down the invitation because of a heavy fund-raising schedule, Kevin Madden, his spokesman, said yesterday," The New York Times reported.
  • "During September, we are all scrambling around to raise money we need to run our campaigns," Romney told C-SPAN's Steve Scully.
  • "We have serious scheduling issues. That's prime fund-raising time," a Giuliani source told the New York Post.

Even days after officials for both the Romney and Giuliani campaigns openly acknowledged that they'd rather be attending fundraisers September 17, some news outlets simply omitted that fact. That's what The Wall Street Journal did with a July 31 front-page article about the Republican YouTube debate that made only passing reference to vague "scheduling issues" for Romney and "scheduling conflicts" for Giuliani.

And here's how washingtonpost.com reported the debate conflict on July 30:

The former Massachusetts governor told C-SPAN on Friday that he would not attend the debate because the Democratic version did not show proper respect to the presidential selection process. Romney was particularly concerned that one of the user-submitted questions (on the environment) came from a snowman. But now Romney is in discussions with CNN about attending. Rudy Giuliani has expressed similar concerns, and has suggested he may also snub the debate.

There was no reference to any fundraisers.

Another item about the YouTube debate posted on washingtonpost.com on July 31 also omitted any reference to the Republican fundraisers as the cause of the scheduling conflict.

A New York Times update, posted on July 30 on The Caucus, the newspaper's political blog, included no mention of the GOP fundraising conflict. Same with the New York Daily News; only a reference that the Giuliani and Romney campaigns were being "uncooperative." According to this USA Today report, the YouTube "sticking point" centered on "logistics" and "scheduling conflicts," not deep-pocketed GOP fundraisers. And there was another vague reference to a "scheduling conflict" in a July 28 Associated Press article.

When news broke in mid-August that the debate had been rescheduled for November and that most of the candidates were aboard, lots of news outlets, such as US News & World Report, left out any mention of the GOP fundraisers that first torpedoed the YouTube debate. Washingtonpost.com continued its erratic coverage with an August 13 report about the resuscitated YouTube debate; there was no mention of the original fundraising conflicts. The same was true of this CBSNews.com report: no reference to GOP fundraisers.

More than one reporter wrote that by initially avoiding the YouTube debate, Republicans had reinforced a stereotype about the GOP being slow to adapt to the new online medium. ("Some Republicans worry that shying away from YouTube will make their candidates seem technophobic or out of touch," reported Time magazine.) Yet I could not find any examples of reporters or pundits suggesting the Republican delay tactics reinforced a stereotype about the GOP putting the concerns of corporate donors ahead of the average voters.

And the thing is, I doubt a single campaign representative had to spend five minutes total with journalists, urging them to play down or drop the fundraising angle to the YouTube story. Reporters and pundits did it all on their own; they chose to mostly whitewash mentions of the fundraisers, just as they chose not to highlight what were Republicans' public priorities and what they might say about the candidates themselves.

Journalists made that choice just like they chose, for months, to emphasize John Edwards' wealth and how his amassed fortune was (negatively) affecting his campaign.

Indeed, the hollow YouTube coverage simply reinforced how the press treats the wealth of Democratic candidates as a political issue, while nearly uniformly ignoring the issue among the Republican candidates who are far wealthier than their Democratic rivals. Meaning, the Democratic candidates don't have as much money as the Republicans, but the press insists the wealth of the Democratic candidates is more telling, politically. That's why Democratic candidates were asked about their personal wealth during an MSNBC debate earlier this year, but Republican candidates at a later MSNBC debate were not.

I do believe that's the definition of a double standard.

For the record, Mitt Romney is worth approximately $250 million, and that's not including the $70 million blind trust he's set up for his children and grandchildren. Rudy Giuliani, according to FEC filings, is worth as much as $70 million. John Edwards' wealth is estimated to be $30 million.

Yet throughout the campaign season, journalists have poked and prodded Edwards' millions because one reason he's running for president is that he hopes to help eradicate poverty in America, and in his fight against poverty, he would be willing to raise taxes on very wealthy Americans, such as himself. In the eyes of the press, that makes his millions more newsworthy, and -- if you read between the campaign coverage lines -- more suspicious.

The Washington Post has published a string of curious, accusatory articles about Edwards' wealth, including one bizarre article that tried unsuccessfully to attach all sorts of dark overtones to the sale of Edwards' Washington, D.C., house. Post editor Bill Hamilton defending the article, insisted it deserved to be on the front page because it involved a "presidential candidate [who] just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man."

I don't think the disdain ringing through Hamilton's response was accidental. Keep in mind, this is the same Washington Post, as Media Matters' Jamison Foser recently noted, that during the entire 2000 White House campaign devoted 26 words, in total, to candidate Bush's sale of Harken stock shortly before the energy stock tanked, and shortly after Bush, a member of Harken's board of directors, was told the company faced a "liquidity crisis."

For the Post, candidate Bush's business interests were utterly irrelevant to his White House aspirations. For the Post, candidate Edwards' business interests are utterly central to his White House aspirations.

Note that when news broke this summer that Giuliani had resigned from the blue ribbon Iraq Study Group, it was because he was too busy collecting six-figure checks for his guest speaking gigs, the ones that sprouted up in the wake of the 9-11 attacks and the ones that earned him nearly $11 million in 2006; $1.7 million in just one month. And this, from the candidate who's touting his post-9-11 national security aura as the central reason for his candidacy.

Writing at the time at his weblog, Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall noted:

So Rudy's running on terrorism and Iraq. But he got booted off a congressionally-mandated blue ribbon panel because he couldn't be bothered to show up for the meetings. It conflicted with his for-a-price speaking gigs. Like I said, it's the kind of story that ends campaigns.

He was right, in theory. Marshall left out the key qualifier, though; it's the kind of story that ends Democratic campaigns. Giuliani had little to fear, and voila, the press quickly bored of the topic.

Here's another perfect example. In July, the Associated Press published a news report suggesting that Romney's large and expensive vacation home in New Hampshire could prove to be "a valuable asset" for the campaign, because it might help him forge a closer bond with voters in the first-in-the-country primary state. Yet earlier this year, the AP published a news report that suggested John Edwards' new large and expensive home in North Carolina was problematic politically because it "contrasts" with Edwards' "anti-poverty message." (Honestly, do journalists think that because Edwards talks about stamping out poverty in America that means he's supposed to be poor? I just don't understand the logic at work.)

Fact: Romney's 'good' vacation house is valued at $10 million. Edwards' 'bad' house is valued at $5 million. Wealthy Republicans=good. Wealthy Democrats=bad.

That's why Romney and Giuliani were able to announce, without the slightest fear of media backlash, that they'd rather spend September 17 hitting up donors instead of interacting with YouTube voters.

If John Edwards had tried a stunt like that, his campaign would have been finished.

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