Axelrod, the Chamber of Commerce, and glass houses

Despite the thorough drubbing the White House has already received over the Chamber of Commerce and its opaque political spending, the issue remains relevant as a sign of an administration that is losing the PR battle. They’ve seized on an issue no one cares about because it’s all they’ve got going for them right now. It also hints at an over-the-top story about the hypocrisy of certain top Democrats.

This issue came up Friday, when one of the pioneers of undisclosed election spending in the post-McCain-Feingold Era — DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse — lied to The New York Times about the ads his 501(c)4 ran during the 2008 cycle.

On top of that, let me bring up a seemingly forgotten point about one of the main caped crusaders on the issue of undisclosed campaign spending. (If someone else already connected these dots, then I apologize, but I couldn’t find it.)  This Newsweek piece from 2008 references a scare campaign that David Axelrod’s firm once ran with undisclosed corporate money, in order to drum up public support for an electricity rate increase.

Commonwealth Edison, the utility, hired Axelrod’s Chicago firm, ASK Public Strategies. ASK helped them set up a dummy astroturf organization called Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity (CORE) to obscure the campaign’s source of funding. As Michael Isikoff wrote in 2008:

CORE ran TV ads warning of a “California-style energy crisis” if the rate increase wasn’t approved—but without disclosing the commercials were funded by Commonwealth Edison. The ad campaign provoked a brief uproar when its ties to the utility, which is owned by Exelon Corp., became known. “It’s corporate money trying to hoodwink the public,” the state’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. What got scant notice then—but may soon get more scrutiny—is that CORE was the brainchild of ASK Public Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior partner is David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Barack Obama.

So there is some irony to the fact that last week, Axelrod was the one who appeared on television to defend the White House’s unsubstantiated attacks and demand that the Chamber voluntarily disclose all of its sources of funding. But the fact that Illinois law did not require any disclosure was good enough for him when he was astro-turfing to hike people’s electricity rates. The lack of any federal requirement for disclosure was also good enough for Woodhouse when he was spending a modest $360,000 on political ads against specific Republican candidates.

Perhaps someday we need better laws that apply to unions, corporations, 501(c)4 groups, and all the rest. But when you see the Democrats speak as though the Chamber of Commerce’s ads are a threat to our democracy, understand the real issue: They don’t think that it’s fair when other people use their own tactics.

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