The Koch brothers secret conference tapes have by now generated well over 100 national media stories, cable news segments, local TV clips related in the states of the candidates who spoke there, and blog posts. I know of at least seven different ads run directly because of the tapes, either by candidates or groups, and there may well be more on the way. Tens of millions of campaign and organization emails have been sent quoting from the tapes. And some prominent Democrats have been talking about them as well, including Harry Reid and Bill Clinton. The story of these prominent Republicans meeting with the Koch brothers in secret will be reverberating around the 2014 election cycle until election day itself.
There is, however, a bigger, more important story that these tapes tell. They tell us of a debate we must have not only in the 2014 elections but for years to come. What is crystal clear from these tapes and from all the other evidence in terms of the money that Koch-backed groups are spending is that the Kochs now mostly control the Republican Party. Their speakers were some of the most powerful Republicans in the country: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; one of the frontrunners in the 2016 presidential race, Marco Rubio; candidates in four of the most important Senate races in the country, two of the most competitive gubernatorial races, and two of the closest House races; one of the most influential House members, Jim Jordan; and the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. And when you have that kind of line-up, it is clear they could have gotten anyone they wanted in the Republican power structure.
As I noted in an earlier blog post, all these high-powered Republicans were very clear how much they owed the Kochs:
Mitch McConnell, speaking of the Republican Party, said, “I want to start by thanking you, Charles and David, for the important work you’re doing. I don’t know where we’d be without you.” Joni Ernst made absolutely clear, multiple times, that she would never had a chance to win her primary without the donors in the room. Tom Cotton thanked the billionaire financiers for reviving the Republican party in his state, and Cory Gardner begged them to invest heavily not only in Colorado but in the entire Rocky Mountain region, which was “ripe” for them to come in and exploit.
In fact, McConnell does know where his Republican Party would be without the Kochs and their network of millionaire and billionaire donors — nowhere. Saddled with a deeply unpopular economic and social agenda, locked down by a primary electorate that won’t allow even occasional forays into moderate policy or rhetoric, crippled by demographic trends that are making their voting base smaller and smaller, Republicans have lost the popular vote six of the last seven presidential elections. Without the Koch money, there would have been no tea party movement or 2010 tidal wave. Without the Koch money, the 2012 presidential race wouldn’t have even been competitive. Without the Kochs’ attack ads, most of the Senate races that are currently closely fought would be trending Democratic. The only thing keeping the Republicans in the game is the Kochs and their big-money friends dumping hundreds of millions of dollars ($290 million this cycle according to some accounts, $500 million according to at least one source) into the pot, and McConnell and other party leaders know it.
Which is exactly why we Democrats and progressives need to focus on this big debate with them over where the country goes economically. In a series of big ideological speeches given the first day of their retreat (which Mitch McConnell called “very inspiring”), Charles Koch, his “grand strategist” Richard Fink, and the Charles Koch Institute’s VP for Research and Policy, Will Ruger, laid out a vision of government and society that would be pretty terrifying to anyone this side of Ayn Rand: The minimum wage (which leads to Nazi-ism) should be abolished; homeless people should be told to “get off [their] ass and work hard like we did”; and government should get out of the business of anything except the police force, military, and judicial system — no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, student loans, clean air or water rules, national or state parks, food safety, Wall Street oversight.
The Republicans are now a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, and they are funneling hundreds of millions every year into trying to impose their view of the world onto the rest of us. The progressive movement and the Democratic party need to be ready to fully and forcefully engage the debate with them. We need to not just highlight their most incendiary quotes caught on tape at the Koch conference — we need to tell the American public why this philosophy is wrong. We need to sketch our own vision of what a free and fair society looks like: workers paid at decent rates, and fueling the economy with the extra money in their pockets; a strong public education system and the ability for anyone who wants to go to college to get there without amassing crippling levels of debt; investments in roads, bridges, and R&D so that the economy can keep growing; a more decentralized banking system so that more local businesses and homeowners can get loans, and so that there are no mega-banks too big to fail; small business and entrepreneurs able to compete with each other rather than getting trampled by huge monopolistic businesses; the creation of millions of new jobs in solar, wind, energy conservation, and other environmentally friendly businesses; older people able to live out their lives with secure incomes and good health care.
This is a debate we can win, but we have to aggressively engage it. The Kochs may want to go back to a Social Darwinist society where only the wealthiest and their friends flourish. Most Americans do not. We need to make very clear what the Kochs, and the Republican Party they now control, stand for — and what we do in response.