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Russ Feingold: Priorities USA 'Playing With The Devil'

Feingold Obama

First Posted: 04/29/11 06:18 PM ET Updated: 06/29/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The announcement on Friday that two former top White House aides were forming a non-government group underwritten in part by secret donors has sparked pointed disagreement over the strategic direction and moral compass of the Democratic Party.

Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton and former senior adviser Sean Sweeney have launched two political fundraising groups. The first, Priorities USA Action, is a political committee organized primarily for influencing elections -- 527 groups, according to the tax code. The second, and more controversial group, is Priorities USA. It is a new type of organization with a 501(c)4 tax status that does not require donor disclosure.

For weeks if not months, the Burton and Sweeney had hinted that they would be spearheading such an effort to aid the president’s reelection campaign. But the formal debut still managed to stir emotional responses from within the party. One faction hailed them as scale-eveners; another bemoaned their ethical surrender.

“I’m not going to endorse playing with the devil. I'm not going to endorse becoming just another corporate candidate,” former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate, said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "I know a lot of Democrats in D.C. don’t agree with me on this. And I, of course, understand the desire to do everything possible to win. But, essentially what you’re doing by this is, you’re trying to become corporate-lite, in effect. And we’ll lose that battle, because [Republicans] are going to have more money.”

To say that Democrats in D.C. are in mere “disagreement” over the development is to understate the fissures. Since their sobering losses in 2010, a number of top Democratic strategists -- who once argued the same principles as Feingold -- have gone on to involve themselves in secretly funded outside groups of their own.

"People are entitled to their opinion,” Burton told HuffPost. "We are Democrats, so of course we disagree on things … But if the Koch brothers are going to spend $100 million promoting their agenda, we have to do things immediately to stem their influence,” he said referring to the major conservative bankrollers, who have became boogeymen to progressives since the last election cycle.

Burton and Sweeny aren’t alone in their influence-stemming scheme. Since the Obama administration declared that secretly funded organizations were potentially subverting democracy, at least five high-profile groups have nevertheless formed to help advocate on behalf of Democratic candidates, the administration, or Democratic issues. Each of these 501(c)4 organizations will, at least in part, depend on donations from benefactors who will not be disclosed. And each is also pledging to spend tens of millions of dollars heading into the next cycle; some, as much as $100 million.

"It's not hypocritical to follow the rules, even though you disagree with them,” said Chris Harris, communications director for American Bridge 21st Century, a new non-government, pro-Democratic group spearheaded by Media Matters’ founder David Brock. "Penn State football coach Joe Paterno came out against the [Bowl Championship Series] and in favor of a playoff system. Is he a hypocrite for still trying to win games and make it to the Rose Bowl? Of course not. He just wants his team to do the best it can within the system as it currently exists. Democrats are the same.”

The question remains: Will mimicking the opposition work?

As Feingold sees it, there is no upside. “If we play the unlimited money game, they’ll win,” he said. “If we draw a contrast, saying that we, in fact, are opposing this kind of domination of the political process, I think we have the ability to overcome it.”

But coming from one of the many 2010 casualties in what was a brutal election cycle for Democrats, such sentiments strike even defenders of the Senator as foolishly idealistic -- if not dangerously naive.

“Nothing like election advice from those who lost,” said Eddie Vale, the communications director at Protect Your Care, a new 501(c)4 health care advocacy outfit that will, in part, rely on secret donations. "In a perfect world … [full disclosure] would be a fine thing to do, but we operate in reality. And if one side is going to use these tactics, I would say it is campaign malpractice to not fight back on an equal playing field.”

Feingold, for his part, said it was unfair to attribute his election loss to outside money. There was a clean sweep of Democrats from "Lake Superior down to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. "I don’t think my race is a good example, because we had one of those sweep years.”

Even for some campaign finance reform advocates, however, the notion of purity being a campaign selling-point strikes hollow.

"How do can you engage in these types of campaigns with hands tied behind your back?” asked David Donnelly, national campaigns director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. "In the end, I want as many reformers as possible to be elected. We need more allies in office to change the rules.”

Donnelly is intimately aware of the paradox. Despite bemoaning the influence of 527 organizations, his group operates one in hopes of electing "reformers.” He is, he stresses, "completely comfortable engaging in the fight in order to get more people in office who are interested in structural reforming government."

Not everyone is as pacified. After all, when Obama abandoned public financing in order to tap into a much larger pool of private donors during the 2008 presidential campaign, it was done with a pledge that -- at a later date -- he would strengthen system to make it more enticing for future candidates. More than two years in, campaign financing has grown only more special-interest-driven. While this is in large part due to decisions made by the Supreme Court, there is little evidence that structural change is in the offing.

"I think there is a certain chunk of the promises made on the campaign that can be pardoned by the distinction between campaigning and governing,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics' executive director. "Certainly there was a high expectation based upon the central platform of changing transparency, accountability, and the way Washington works… There is, I think, a pretty vocal minority but certainly still a big group that is extremely disappointed" about those promises being broken, she said.

Part of the problem is structural. If Democrats opt out of public financing or rely on secret donors to win elections, what would compel them to turn around and abandon those tools?

"That would be a down-the-road concern," said Feingold.

But there is, of course, another side of that coin: Without self-committed reformers even making it to office, there isn’t even the possibility for those systematic changes to be considered.

“The only way we can change the system is seize control of the system. You can't change the direction of the bus if your hands aren't on the wheel,” said Burton.

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