by Keaton Weiss
I love wine. My wife loves wine. The first vacation we ever took together was out to Portland, Oregon to visit her uncle, who took us wine tasting there. Then we rented a car and drove down to Napa for another two days of wine tasting before flying out of San Francisco back to New York. But until last week, neither of us had ever heard of a “Wine Cave.”
But because Elizabeth Warren recently called out Pete Buttigieg for his closed-door, high-dollar fundraiser in one of these wine caves, the term is now widely known, even among us working class slobs who’ve never been in one ourselves. This has ushered in a new iteration of the debate about the nature of political fundraising, and the influence that often accompanies it. Are these types of fundraising practices inherently corrupt and therefore intrinsically bad? Are they an unfortunate reality of political campaigning that we must tolerate, however undesirable? Or are they, as Jane Lynch, whose net worth is estimated at $16 million and who is also against “class warfare,” seems to think, completely benign?
For those struggling with this question, I can’t highly enough recommend Ryan Grim’s recent piece in The Intercept on this subject. I came across the article when I saw someone had linked to it in a Facebook group. Without disclosing the group itself or any of its members, I can say this was a very mainstream Democrat, #resistance-type group. Not particularly progressive, to say the least. But someone had posted a link to Grim’s article, and had quoted the following section in her post:
“The wine cave in question was named after, and the event was hosted by, a man at the center of the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, the largest giveaway to the financial industry in U.S. history until the 2008 Wall Street bailout. This was Craig Hall, 69, a billionaire several times over. . .Hall is a longtime political donor, who, with his wife Kathryn, has given at least $2.4 million to Democratic candidates and causes since the 1980s. As Buttigieg hinted, he hosts an annual event for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the winery.
But Pelosi is not the first speaker he’s lavished money on. In the 1980s, he was a major donor to Democratic Rep. Jim Wright of Texas.
Hall first made his money both in the health care industry and in real estate. By the late ’80s he was badly overextended, with federal creditors looking to foreclose on his empire. Hall asked Wright to intervene on his behalf, and Wright did so, strong-arming regulators to go easy on Hall. When Wright’s machinations became public, it contributed to his resignation as speaker of the House.
The story of the S&L crisis is a particularly ugly one. Both parties, with many of the same donors, collaborated to allow the problem — and the eventual cost to taxpayers — to grow for years so that it would not become an issue in the 1988 presidential election. As soon as the voting was over, Americans found out that they were on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars. The government had to allocate $364 million just for depositors in an S&L owned by Hall himself, who eventually paid $100 million to settle a federal lawsuit. Just a few years later, Clinton named Kathryn Hall as ambassador to Austria. Yet the political donations behind this were, for the most part, completely legal and hence not “corrupt” by the narrow definition.”
Obviously, the person who posted the link was outraged by this, as anyone reading it should be. As an example of the corrosive impact of big money on our democratic processes, this is as obvious as it gets. Instead, however, the general consensus among those who responded to the post was that this is just a divisive distraction, and that we all need to just let it go because we have to unite and defeat the GOP. In essence, their attitude was, “Whatever. Vote blue!”
I can’t say I was surprised to read those reactions – I’ve had enough debates with the blue-no-matter-who types to keep my expectations in the sewer. Still though, it does boggle the mind how brainwashed the Democratic base is that they would shrug this story off while, at the same time, they’re trying to convince the majority of Americans that they’re serious about protecting our democracy and our constitutional norms from Donald Trump. If you read that passage and your response is that it doesn’t matter, or that we ought to just accept that this is how the sausage is made, then, to be blunt, you don’t care about democracy.
Democrats’ hypocrisy on this is one thing – we’ve grown accustomed to that by now. But their lack of self awareness is stunning. They’re in the middle of an impeachment process in which they’re attempting to rally support for ousting the president because his actions undermine our democratic system. While they’re doing this, their Speaker of the House, as well as one of their prized presidential contenders, is doing private fundraisers with a billionaire whose history of greasing Democratic politicians for personal favors is proven and documented. And even after he settled a $100 million lawsuit with the federal government, the Democratic President whose wife was the most recent Democratic nominee, awarded Hall’s wife an ambassadorship for which she was probably no more qualified than Hunter Biden was for his Burisma gig. This all gets laid out for them in a succinct, indisputable account, yet they have no real response except to gaslight critics into thinking this is no big deal. And on top of this, they can’t fathom why their impeachment is failing to work for them politically.
Democrats’ own lack of credibility on this issue isn’t the only barrier to impeachment’s success. As Grim mentions in his article, Craig Hall’s donations were legal, and “hence not ‘corrupt’ by the narrow definition.” What this means is that in the minds of many Americans, this democratic system is itself as illegitimate as the Democratic Party’s hollow, sanctimonious rhetoric about their duty to protect and uphold it. And if the system’s already FUBAR, then what’s the difference if Russia or Ukraine fuck it up some more? And as I mentioned in my previous blog post, it’s true that most Americans don’t know for a fact the details of these fundraisers that Grim outlines. But they do know enough about our system to assume that these stories are true, and now, what d’ya know? We have a detailed, documented example of what it is they know intuitively goes on all the time. Remember, this very wine cave in question hosts a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi every year.
So now that this topic is front and center in the news, Democrats have a decision to make: they can either defend democracy or they can defend private fundraisers with billionaire oligarchs in crystal wine caves. They can’t defend both. And if they hope to convince the public that they’re the Constitution’s last line of defense against Donald Trump and the Russians, or the Ukrainians, or Moscow Mitch, or whoever, then the choice ought to be obvious.