The Democratic Party has been trying (and failing) to sell its soul since 1981

While reflecting on the events of the last election, I had a name bouncing around in my mind. I had read long ago that the Democrats developed their thirst for big money decades ago. A name kept floating to my consciousness over the last 24 hours, like a calling to write an article.


I had to search for it again and got the spelling wrong, but Google knew what I wanted. Tony Coelho. That was the name. I had read that he was instrumental in bringing in the big money for the Democrats in the 1980’s in a way that started the inexorable slide of the Democratic Party from a workers party to a corrupt organization unwilling to serve the people they claim to represent. We know this now from the thoroughly unhinged and unprincipled campaign that the DNC and Hillary Clinton ran against Bernie Sanders.

With astonishing luck, I found an article the chronicles the start of the decline of the Democratic Party. The Business of Politics, written by Gregg Easterbrook and published by The Atlantic Monthly in October, 1986. It’s a very long read and a veritable time capsule of the way things were when the Dems got started with their addiction to money. It is truly remarkable that this article can be found online since it was published long before we figured out how to make the internet work for consumers. I would like to share with you some notable passages from that article to get some perspective on where we are now.

First, let’s talk a bit about the subject of the article. Tony Coelho was a rookie politician when he was named chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was the one who figured out how to bring the big money in to the Democratic Party. He held a seat in the House of Representatives for the State of California for five terms. His success at winning and keeping seats in Congress brought to him the power he needed to change the way the Democrats treated power, the media and the people they claimed to represent. He was absolutely clear on where to get the money, but apparently not so clear on how that money would later affect the party.

The excerpts that I present here come in no particular order relative to that article from the Atlantic. I am including them in the order I consider relevant to the topic of the decline of the Democratic Party, and what caught my eye first. Let’s start with Chris Matthews. Surprised? I was. I didn’t think he went back that far, but he caught the eye of Mr. Coelho:

One of Coelho’s first acts at the DCCC was to hire Chris Matthews, a young political operative with a keen understanding of television’s need to reduce issues to pictures and single sentences. Coelho pushed O’Neill to take Matthews as his press secretary; Matthews, who is well liked by the Washington press corps because of his ready wit, had soon sweet-talked the networks into treating the Speaker as if he were an opposition leader in the Philippines or Nicaragua, so that sundry evening-news clips of Reagan were followed by ten-second retorts from O’Neill. (emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that the article was written in 1986 when Reagan was president. Tip O’Neil was Speaker of the House. The Democrats were still fighting for the working man and Mr. Coelho turned them into something else from that point. Take note of the description of Mr. Matthews as a young political operative who understands television for the political power it represents. This is the same Chris Matthews who, in 2016, went along with the Associated Press to declare Hillary Clinton as the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination process one day before the final primaries were held in California and several other states. Yeah, that guy. He worked with Tony Coelho to turn the Democratic Party into the corporate servant that they are now. In the last election cycle, it was disclosed through Wikileaks that the DNC was forwarding advance notice of debate questions from the press to Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the primaries. It is now clear that the media and the DNC colluded against Bernie Sanders during the campaign. Just how did they get so close? Tony Coelho provided the spark to move the press from objective observer to fawning worshiper:

Coelho has further preached to Democrats the value of “free media”: rather than pay for ads, get the networks to broadcast the message voluntarily. He is especially proud of a free-media coup that took place when the DCCC held a press conference, in March of 1984, announcing an advertising campaign to embarrass Reagan on the “sleaze issue.” The event was given prominent play on the evening news; the three major networks ran excerpts from tapes of the coming ad which Coelho had distributed. The ad itself never ran — network coverage had been the goal all along.

That was an innovation back then. Today, it’s common practice for the television networks to broadcast “advertising” like it’s news. We know this because they were perfectly content to provide the lion’s share of free coverage to Trump and Clinton while ignoring Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders runs his campaigns on small donations from ordinary people like you and me. He has won 14 elections with that strategy, so we know that the strategy is not new. Coelho worked hard to bring in money from business. But as he brought in business money, the average dollar value of each donation went up. Coelho recognized the power of small donors in large numbers back in the 1980's:

“In 1981 the average Democratic House contribution was about five hundred dollars, while the comparable Republican average was thirty-eight dollars,” Coelho said. “That told me very quickly something was wrong. Here we were the party of the little guy, yet the small contributors were going Republican.” By 1986 Democratic direct mail had recovered. Coelho could boast that the DCCC’s average contribution was “down” to $35, with small contributors providing nearly half of the committee’s take. (Different schools of thought exist on the ultimate value of direct mail as a fund-raising technique. Overhead is high, anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent; the overhead involved in soliciting a PAC contribution, usually $30 or $40 for steak, shrimp, and drinks, consumes a much smaller proportion of the gift. The impact of direct mail appeals in general has declined as the practice proliferates and people’s mailboxes fill up with unwanted and unread mail. What fund-raisers continue to like about direct mail is that it can be operated on an automated basis. No traveling, personal appearances, or handshaking is required.)

It is clear that Coelho knew that large dollar amounts gave the wrong impression to the liberal base Democrats relied upon for their support. He didn’t want the Democrats to be seen as the rich man’s party, but needed and wanted the big money just the same. Coelho also understood that business had to deal with the Democrats, so he let them know it. From the article:

Coelho admits, with a frankness that has won him a minor celebrity status among political cognoscenti, that in the dark days following the 1980 elections his appeal to donors was, as Robert Kuttner reported in The New Republic, “Business has to deal with us whether they want to or not. I tell them, ‘You’re going to need to work with us.’”

If that pitch sounds like a mixture of protection racket (nice little multinational you have here; too bad if anything should happen to it) and an offer to play ball, that’s exactly how it was intended to sound. Political fund-raising appeals often boil down to this formula, though fund-raisers prefer lofty phrases about national purpose. In the period following Reagan’s election the most persuasive argument Democrats could make to business leaders with conservative sympathies was that it would be more cost-effective to buy Democratic good will than to try to wipe out the party altogether. Democrats still had incumbency on their side in the House, and going after dozens of them would be a very different matter from going after one President or a few senators.

Here we see business getting a clear message that Democratic “good will” could be bought, if the price were right. Coelho has turned the Democratic Party into a business, disconnected from the people they claim to represent:

“What I wanted was to make the DCCC like a business. What I have now is a business that is successful. My business had no assets, and today has five million dollars in assets. My business had no income, and today we open up our doors every month and get three hundred thousand dollars in direct mail. The business of politics is what I’m all about.”

The Democratic Party, with its DNC and DCCC are fully aware that they’re running a business that they call politics. To put it more bluntly, what they are selling is access. Paid access to politicians means influence on public policy that ordinary people don’t have. This is what Hillary Clinton was selling as Secretary of State, as a member of the Senate, as a paid speaker for the big banks, and as candidate for president. With the corruption of the Democratic Party nearly complete, they can no longer sell the progressive image to their base. They were acting like Republicans in the quest for big money from business and lost the White House last November as a result. They’ve been losing seats in Congress, governors mansions and statehouse seats for years trying to act like Democrats, but not quite pulling it off.

Tony Coelho taught us valuable lessons about the corrupting influence of big money in politics. With his help, the Democratic Party sold out the middle class long ago. Let us be aware of our history so that we need not repeat it again.

Originally published at on January 1, 2017.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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