Bushenfreude revisited.

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 6 2004 5:53 PM

Bushenfreude Revisited

How the president's tax cuts have revived Democratic fund-raising.

Getting the wrong donors fired up
Getting the wrong donors fired up

Last November, I noticed a strange new malady affecting the rich: Bushenfreude. Democrats who were big beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts were suffering from a weird mix of confusion, annoyance, exhilaration, and anger. They were enjoying their extra income while loathing its source—a Republican in the White House and Republican-controlled Congress.

Democrats were ambivalent about these ill-gotten gains. One of the main symptoms of Bushenfreude turned out to be a tendency to spend the windfall on luxury goods and on the Democratic Party. In the months since, Bushenfreude has become a major force, so important that it may help send John Kerry to the White House. The left-wing rich—like the right-wing rich—are still shopping at fancy stores, buying expensive real estate, and saving for their kids' sure-to-be Ivy League educations. But thanks to the Bush tax cuts, they still have plenty left over to spend on John Kerry, 527s, and Democratic candidates for Congress. Bushenfreude might be the most important reason why Democrats are raising more money in 2004 than ever before.

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The invaluable OpenSecrets.org Web site is a Baedeker to Bushenfreude. This page shows the remarkable success both parties have had raising funds. President Bush raised $228.7 million through June 20, of which $225 million came from individuals. Very impressive. But the Democrats have collectively raised more. John Kerry raised $186 million through June 20—far beyond the wildest expectations of the Kerry team. (Fund-raising activity in July brought that total over $200 million.) Add in the totals raised by Kerry's primary competitors, and individuals have given more than $300 million to Democrats seeking to unseat President Bush. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has nearly matched the fund-raising prowess of its Republican counterpart.

Then there are the 527s—independent organizations unbound by McCain-Feingold donation restrictions that have harvested $192 million so far this campaign cycle, according to OpenSecrets. A glimpse at the top 50 reveals that the 527s are almost an exclusively Democratic phenomenon. While some are backed by unions, the biggies are funded by some of the single largest beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. The largest is the Joint Victory Campaign with $41.7 million (big donors: hedge-fund manager George Soros, Progressive Corp. honcho Peter Lewis). It in turn has funneled cash into the second and third largest 527s, the Media Fund, a Harold Ickes attack vehicle, and America Coming Together. The Club for Growth, the first Republican 527 in the top 50, is the eighth-largest with a mere $4.8 million in total receipts. (You can tell it's run by supply-siders because the numbers on receipts and expenditures don't add up.)

In my suburban Connecticut town, where I first detected Bushenfreude, a virulent strain is still raging. The president isn't waging much of a campaign in one of his ancestral home states, the wealthiest in America. So, angry rich Democrats in Fairfield County—Stepford Country—are taking out their anger on their congressman. Moderate Republican Christopher Shays is a decent guy seemingly perfectly in touch with his suburban constituency—he voted for the tax cuts and went to the recent pro-choice rally. In 2002, his challenger mustered a mere $110,000, and Shays was re-elected to serve a ninth term with 64 percent of the vote.

This year, Shays is getting a run for his money—literally. In the first quarter of 2004, challenger Diane Farrell, the first selectwoman of Westport, hoped to raise $250,000; she raised $370,000, more than Shays. So far, the records show she's raised $721,000, virtually all from individuals in the district. Shays has raised $1.044 million. Farrell's coffers are being filled by Metro North Democrats—men and women whose natural habitat is the New York-Stamford-New Haven corridor and who toil in finance, insurance, real estate, media.

Like many Bushenfreude sufferers, they're generally comfortable with their social and financial lot. So why are they blowing their hard-earned cash on political ads, yard signs, and $1,000-a-head dinners? They're angry about the war, science policy, the religious right. They're worried about the Supreme Court, air quality, and the budget deficit. They're worried about everything but the prospect that John Kerry might raise taxes on those who earn more than $200,000. "It doesn't come up," said Diane Farrell. "These people realize that life is about more than tax cuts. People feel so strongly about the administration."

President Bush isn't a man given to irony. (This is a guy who talks with a straight face about fiscal discipline.) But here's an irony so obvious even he could appreciate it. What if his signature accomplishment—cutting taxes on the rich, including many angry Democrats—sowed the seeds of his own destruction?

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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