It is tempting to applaud the nonprofit group that is spending nearly $100,000 on ads to pressure Republican lawmakers to accept gun-control measures. The group is fighting a well-financed and powerful corporate gun lobby that has never hesitated to spend millions to get its way in Congress.
But a closer look at this group shows how disturbing its work is. Its name is Organizing for Action; if its initials seem familiar, that’s because the group is the direct descendant of Obama for America, the President’s campaign organization in 2008 and 2012.
That organization is defunct, but its new incarnation has its extremely valuable voter database and many of the same strategists. What it does not have are the campaign’s old limits on who can donate money and how much they can give.
In fact, there are no limits, because it has reorganized as a so-called social welfare group unbound by campaign restrictions. Corporations and billionaires can write checks of any size, aware that they are giving to a group with close ties to the White House, one that is busily promoting President Obama’s agenda. And now that this White House has torn down the last wall between its needs and those of special interests, others will surely do the same.
The organization plans to raise $50 million, the New York Times recently reported. At least half of that sum will come from donors who are pressured to bring in $500,000 or more.
Give or raise that much and you get to be on the group’s “national advisory board,” which will hold quarterly meetings with the President. That is nothing more than a fancy way of setting a price for access to Mr. Obama.
For a $50,000 check, donors can attend a “founders summit” this month at a Washington hotel, where they can mingle with Jim Messina, Organizing for Action’s chairman and the President’s former campaign manager, and Jon Carson, the group’s executive director and formerly the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Another longtime presidential adviser, David Plouffe, is also involved with the group.
It is understandable that the White House might want to make use of its campaign voter list, mobilizing supporters when it needs help getting bills through Congress. The group’s leaders say they will hold rallies on important topics ranging from immigration to climate change and note that this kind of organizing is expensive. But the frantic pursuit of big money makes it impossible to call this a grass-roots effort.
Any corporation with a matter pending before the administration can give lavishly to Organizing for Action as a way of currying favor, knowing that the West Wing will take note. (The group does not have to disclose its donors but says it will, and plans to reject money from registered lobbyists and political action committees.) It is also a way for donors to bypass the limits on giving to the Democratic Party: The new group does similar work but without restrictions on donations.
When conservative groups first began using social welfare groups as vehicles for fund-raising and advocacy, Mr. Obama denounced the practice. “You can’t stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people,” he said in 2010.
A year later, though, he allowed his supporters to set up a “super PAC” called Priorities USA Action. The new group is built on the same defeatist philosophy of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
If Organizing for Action wants to restore the bracing political spirit that carried Mr. Obama into office in 2008, it can refuse all corporate contributions and limit donations to a few hundred dollars. Otherwise, it will play the same sleazy game that its opponents do made even worse by the assent of the President.
— New York Times