Beyond Elections: Why Political Elites Hedge Their Bets

Jun 23, 2011Matt Stoller

Washington's rigged system of special interests ensures that brave politicians and staffers don't stick around long. (Follow Matt Stoller on Twitter at @matthewstoller).

Political analysts tend to gloss over what I would call hedging behavior on the part of political elites. While elections are somewhat random, the fact that you will be on the losing side of an election at some point is guaranteed. So politicos don't ask: What's the best way to win an election? Rather, they ask: What's the best way to preserve my risk-adjusted position in the political ecosystem of influence and money? This means setting yourself up to win an election if possible, but not in an especially populist manner that could increase the downside of losing or falling into the minority.

Let's take a look at someone that I liked a great deal while I worked in the House, a staffer named Doug Thornell, who worked for Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Van Hollen was the architect of the Democratic response to Citizens United, as well as the Chair of the electoral arm of the House Democrats, the DCCC. Thornell was his communications staffer, and you could always count on him for a quote to go after the GOP's reliance on special interests. Thornell was also one of the Hill's 50 most beautiful people in 2010.

In 2010, Doug Thornell would let the GOP have it.

"For 20 years, John Boehner has been in Washington caddying for powerful corporate special interests and working against middle class families," Doug Thornell said. "He rushed to support President Bush's Wall Street bailout, but when President Obama asked for his support for middle class tax cuts, help for small businesses and aid for those most in need, he turned his back."

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Fast-forward to 2011. Doug Thornell is now working for a group seeking to allow corporations to repatriate profits without paying taxes. His tune on special interests has changed.

“Our broken tax system currently penalizes U.S. businesses that want to bring their global earnings home,” said Doug Thornell, a former House Democratic staffer who is now a spokesman for the Win America Campaign. “The simple truth is there are few policy options left that will inject this amount of money into our economy and cost taxpayers next to nothing.”

You can say "how dare he do this!" But that's actually beside the point. Doug is a highly trained and highly competent communications staffer, and he genuinely did want to help people when he worked for Van Hollen. Where else could he go after the Democrats lost the majority? It's obvious that the career path options in the political class are so limited that they constrain behavior within the institutions themselves.

I sometimes see Wall Street titans or wealthy people bemoaning the corruption in DC. Hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, for instance, says that he wants his taxes raised. This may be laudable, but it ignores the basic hedge in DC. If a politician votes against special interests, he will face enormous bitter attacks, and should he lose, he will fade into obscurity. If a politician votes for special interests, the converse dynamic will kick in. In such an environment, you wouldn't expect brave politicians or staffers to last very long. And they don't.

So anyway, this is just a way of explaining that advice along the lines of "here's how to win" tends not to work in DC, because the problem isn't just about how to win an election. Operating in DC is more like being a trader, where the amount of the downside matters as well. If you want to fix that dynamic, then make sure that people like Doug Thornell have places to go where they don't have to work to help Google cut its own tax rate.

Matt Stoller is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson.

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