THE BLOG
10/01/2010 12:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Soros, Lewis and Other Big Donors Abandon Democrats for Progressives and Weed

Privately, the closed wallets of Democratic billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis is all that the poobahs of the DC fundraising world have been talking about for weeks. But now it's hit the New York Times:

Many wealthy Democratic patrons, who in the past have played major roles financing outside groups to help elect the party's candidates, are largely sitting out these crucial midterm elections.

Democratic donors like George Soros, the bête noire of the right, and his fellow billionaire Peter B. Lewis, who each gave more than $20 million to Democratic-oriented groups in the 2004 election, appear to be holding back so far.

"Mr. Soros believes that he can be most effective by funding groups that promote progressive policy outcomes in areas such as health care, the environment and foreign policy," said an adviser, Michael Vachon. "So he has opted to fund those activities."

I personally can't wait till the White House press office releases Obama's speech to millionaires in Greenwich calling Soros and Lewis "ungrateful whiners."

For Mr. Soros, who was also a big donor in 2006 and 2008, it is a matter of being more focused on pushing to get the policy outcomes he wants than on the electoral process, Mr. Vachon said.

Two of George Soros's biggest issues are torture and weed. He's been called "the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization," and shortly after Obama took office his Open Society Institute started pushing for a commission to investigate America's use of torture since 9/11. Obama and Harry Reid poured cold water on the idea of a torture commission, and the administration "firmly opposes marijuana legalization."

The attention of Mr. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, also appears to be elsewhere this year. Jennifer Frutchy, who advises Mr. Lewis on his philanthropy, said he was focused at the moment on "building progressive infrastructure and marijuana reform."

"That's just where his head is right now," Ms. Frutchy said.

Two billionaires -- and the majority of those under age 29 -- enthusiastically support marijuana legalization. Maybe appointing former Clinton drug policy adviser Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff, the guy who threatened doctors with jail time for prescribing marijuana to their patients, was not the swiftest move.

For donors, there is certainly an element of fatigue from giving cycle after cycle, as well as an economic squeeze brought on by the recession, the operatives said. But some more ideological donors are also upset that the Obama administration has not been more aggressive in pushing a liberal agenda.

Translation: Gay men, pro-choice women and environmentalists are probably the three biggest issue-based donor groups for the Democratic Party, and all three are absolutely ripshit at the way the Democrats have squandered their majorities. They're also furious at the veal pen outfits that collaborated with the Democrats and gave them cover for their actions and have cut them off, too. Guess that weekly invite to the Common Purpose meeting turned out not to be such a hot ticket after all.

Labor unions are still promising to spend large sums of money backing Democrats. But they are not keeping up at this point with the flood of money going to Republican-leaning organizations.

So, let's see if I have this straight. After the unions put hundreds of millions into getting Obama elected, and they get played on EFCA, the Democrats lay the blame off on ConservaDem Senators like Blanche Lincoln. So the unions spend $10 million trying to send a message to Lincoln, working within the Democratic party to support a primary opponent.

When Lincoln wins, "senior White House officials" are instantly calling journalists to taunt the unions as "absolute idiots" who "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise." Which creates huge problems for unions at the local level when it comes to putting money into political races in the future because members are always dubious about such outlays to begin with.

Then Robert Menendez, head of the DSCC, sends out a memo cheering Lincoln's victory over "special interests in Washington" -- the unions. Chuck Schumer goes on to the floor of the Senate and applauds Lincoln for "fighting Wall Street with one hand, and unions with the other." Nonetheless, Menendez says he expects labor's "support, you know, financially" in "all of our races across the country."

The Democrats could have passed legislation that would have doubled union membership by now. They didn't.

Why would the unions be sitting on closed wallets? I can't imagine.

Big donors from Wall Street, including hedge fund executives and investment bankers, are also angry at the administration.

Sucking up to our Wall Street overlords while dog whistling to your base is not as easy as the GOP makes it look.

It also appears, however, that Republicans have outmaneuvered their Democratic counterparts since the Citizens United decision. They have taken advantage of Democratic broadsides against the ruling, which have inevitably had an effect on the attitudes of Democratic donors.

Mr. Obama devoted one of his weekly radio addresses this month to the effect he said untamed special interests were having on the midterm election. "We can see for ourselves how destructive to our democracy this can become," he said. "We see it in the flood of deceptive attack ads sponsored by special interests using front groups with misleading names."

Several Democratic strategists said the White House's denunciations had made entreaties to prospective donors trickier.

So, the President is out there saying that the post-Citizens United IE's are "politics at its worst," and that the decision "gave special interests the power to spend without limit -- and without public disclosure -- to run ads in order to influence elections." Why wouldn't big Democratic donors want to jump right in and have that thrown at them? I 'm stumped.

Belatedly, some additional Democratic third-party efforts are shaping up. An organization called Commonsense Ten is emerging as a conduit for large checks directed toward Senate races and recently went up on the air with television advertisements in Missouri and Washington State.

"Belatedly." Yeah, because nobody could've seen this coming.

Over all, though, the group is talking about spending, along with its partner organizations, about $5 million, with commitments from donors so far for about half of that.

In contrast, American Crossroads and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, the biggest Republican-oriented group involved in Senate races, has said it is well on its way to raising $50 million for this election.

What if someone had had the foresight to anticipate the impact of the highly unpopular Citizens United decision, and used their party's majorities in Congress to pass legislation that would have made it difficult for big corporations to hide political money in the Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove's $50 million independent expenditure operation without disclosure? What if there was a party that had gone to the mat trying to control corporate influence over politics rather than trying to exploit it, and given themselves at the very least a solid campaign issue for 2010?

The bigger problem for the Democrats, however, is not that Lewis and Soros are sitting it out -- it's that Lewis and Soros are considered "lead donors." Where they go, other donors follow. If they decide to sit it out, so will others.

The complaints that Soros and Lewis have are the same ones expressed by all those hippies that Robert Gibbs, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been punching. It's a malaise felt by the entire progressive base, and it has nothing to do with the fact that progress is happening "too slowly."

Joe Biden told Rachel Maddow that Obama wasn't suspending Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges because they were building support in the Senate to repeal it, and traded the suspension away for votes. Well the votes didn't materialize, and the repeal went down to defeat. Either the White House got played, or Biden wasn't telling the truth.

Regardless, there is nothing whatsoever stopping the President, as Commander in Chief, from suspending DADT discharges pending the Pentagon 's review of the policy. If people want to know what's keeping the wallets of progressive donors shut, it's not because change isn't happening "fast enough." Its because they want Democrats to respect core Democratic values, not give excuses. They know when Congress or Republicans are the obstacles, and they know when they're not. And Don't Ask, Don't Tell is but one example of where promises made could be kept today, but it's just not happening.