Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island recently spoke with Business Insider while promoting his newly released book, "Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy."
Whitehouse is a fierce critic of the role that money plays in politics in a post-Citizens United America.
Elected in 2006, Whitehouse is the ranking member of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election.
Business Insider discussed a number of topics with Whitehouse, including the lessons learned from President Donald Trump's election, what the Democrats must sell to voters to win in 2018 and 2020, and the continually evolving role of money in politics.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Allan Smith: How has corporate influence harmed the Democratic Party specifically?
Sheldon Whitehouse: It rather specifically kept us from getting a majority in the Senate in this election because the Koch political operative group, Americans for Prosperity, had pledged to spend $750 million, and they didn't really like Trump. They didn't get behind him in a big way. So a lot of that money instead went into general fieldwork. They had, for instance, 14 field offices in Florida. Just ready to help whomever. And that stayed in place when Trump became the candidate. They weren't going to go anywhere else. But they couldn't and didn't spend at all in the presidential. So they turned to the swing states, and they spent immense amounts of money in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
They spent something like $40 million beating the crap out of the governor [Ted Strickland], so he never really got off the ground. He was just so badly strafed as he pulled his candidacy out onto the runway that Rob Portman, who was behind him in the early polling, ended up winning by a huge margin. Basically, people had given up on the race by then it was so catastrophic. They turned Ron Johnson from a 12-, 15-point underdog into a narrow, real victory. They edged out Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania. And I think each one of those states was in the $20 million to $40 million expenditure range. So that's a pretty big deal.
Smith: Do you think that played a role in Trump's victories in those states? Maybe those senators picked him up a bit.
Whitehouse: Yeah, I think that when you've got a largely zero-sum electorate, as there's largely Republican and Democrat and not much else. When you can get out your leaning-Republican vote, if you can get them out for Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, once they get in, they're probably going to be more likely to vote for Trump. So I think the waves kind of built on each other, even if Koch people weren't all that excited about Trump personally, but besides their operation in Florida undoubtedly helped Trump down there. And in addition to our Senate candidate getting defeated there as well. That's a pretty obvious way.
The other thing that I see is that these big political enterprises can plan in ways that aren't kind of customary politics. Usually, it's like 'Here comes the election, up go the candidates, up goes the messages.' Everybody runs to the ball and you have you're big Election Day surge. Then you go back and go back to work. Things like REDMAP and the redistricting plan that cooked the delegations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin particularly, that took really careful strategic planning. And to get in there and advance and win the state legislatures, you had to get the mapping people who had to do this lined up, you had to get the maps drawn and get that through the state legislature, then you had to go out there and find the candidates and actually win the elections. But that's operating at a level of planning and sophistication that politics is not always marked by.
Smith: You're from Rhode Island, and something that is unique to Rhode Island and a handful of states is that you have the ability, if you so choose, to have much closer interaction with a lot of your constituents.
Whitehouse: You bump into them at the market, at restaurants, at a soccer game.
Smith: And for fundraising, do you think that it presents a totally different element being from a state like Rhode Island as opposed to being from California, New York, or Texas — states that have massive populations spread out over a very large area and states that have huge corporate interests within them already? What challenges does that present for fundraising, and do you believe that it's significantly different coming from your perspective or from a state like Texas or California?
Whitehouse: I've never lived the Texas or the California experience. But my take is that the sums involved are so enormous there, say, compare Senate to Senate. The sums involved are so enormous there that you really have to systematize your fundraising, and expectations are very different if you have to raise $30 million, $40 million in California to run successfully for reelection, that's an awful lot of people. It's really hard to raise it all making phone calls one at a time, even if you're going to hit $5,000 per phone call, that's just a hell of a lot of time.
So you have to move to another level and have basically a machine that grinds that out for you, with a lot less senator time dedicated to it. That wouldn't be worth the trouble in Rhode Island, and people have different expectations, so they expect to hear me on the phone, they expect a personal aspect, a personal note of thanks. And that's all fine at Rhode Island scale. None of that is possible at New York, California, Texas scale. So I think that's the big difference. I'm still operating in an environment that is 10 or 15 years behind where you guys have to be. I mean, Schumer's fundraising is pretty legendary and I don't think people expect that they're going to have a signed note if they give him a thousand bucks.
Smith: What I guess I'm trying to get at is, if you're a senator from New York, for instance — is there a way to avoid having Wall Street want to contribute a lot to your campaign to have some level of influence when you're coming from a state like here where it's, you know, so ingrained, it's a home-state interest, and they have huge weight?
Whitehouse: I think what everybody understands, the constituency of various industry issues. I, for one, despite being a pretty solid climate hawk, I am extremely sympathetic to West Virginia and its coal-country needs. I lived there for a year. I've seen it. And the same for Wyoming, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky. They all have parts of their state where that really matters. And I think that home-state constituency issue is a pretty constant one. And I think the problem of extreme lobbying by the corporate sector, which runs about $30-to-$1 compared to everybody else in the world, and the constituent aspect combines to give those industries a consistent advantage. But when they fight with other big industries, like over net neutrality or swipe fees or something like that, that all kind of tends to be a wash.
If, I think, what's made it worse, in my estimation, is that the new political stuff that has emerged. The 501 c4s. The super PACs. All of that. I mean, that didn't exist when I first ran. And I've been around politics now for close to 40 years. I actually had a pretty long run in the pre-bizarro land political world. So I can't help but still notice all this bizarro stuff that keeps happening. And I think that's where the really big, big dangers come in, because through that forum the industry can hide its hand, the Koch brothers disappear behind Americans for Prosperity ... and Americans for Prosperity can give big donations to Donors Trust, which then launders the identity even for Americans for Prosperity, it goes to the George C. Marshall Institute, and on you go.
And so trying to chase the pea back through that shell game and find out who the protagonist is becomes harder and harder for the American people. And that is frustrating and demoralizing and confusing and simply bad from a democracy point of view. You don't know what the story is because the characters aren't evident. They're masked, you don't know really who's really who. You've got a real problem on your hands. That, I think, is the worst worry about it.
The two other novel worries that are the persistent focus on business-friendly judges, which has turned the courts — the Supreme Court particularly — into a political institution ... If you look at the five-to-four, all-Republican, all-Democrat decisions. That involves elections, every single time the decision comes down in the directions of assisting the Republican Party at the polls.
Corporations against human beings. Every single time the decision comes down in favor of corporations against human beings. And when it's kind of a long-shot issue — like, does the Second Amendment protect the private right to bear arms? — they'll bolt off five-to-four and do that with zero precedent to support it, and not too long ago the former chief justice said the very notion was a fraud. So it's a pretty big departure when you have that big a difference.
And the last piece that is a derivative of the first problem is that once people know that you can spend the money and that you're willing to spend the money and that you're set up to spend the money in politics, then your threat to spend the money is as convincing as actually spending it.
And although the Supreme Court in its naivety assumed that all of this was going to play out on a public stage in a way that everyone could see who was doing what, and it was going to be independent of candidates and it wasn't going to be riddled with problems of integrity, the threat, which that decision enabled, was never going to be anything but private. I mean, that just is a ridiculous proposition to think that ExxonMobil is going to make a public threat to spend $10 million against some congressman. It doesn't happen that way.
Smith: Do you think the bigger problem is the massive amounts of money that are able to be spent, or the fact that a lot of the money is dark?
Whitehouse: Both. But not knowing where it comes from is a really big deal, because again, there are masked protagonists. So nobody knows where the storm is coming from. And frankly, I think it's creepy to sit on my couch watching TV that is speaking about a Rhode Island race or a race that I know, and when it comes to the end blurb in the ad, and it says some group that you know doesn't exist or isn't real. It's not Coca-Cola. It's not ExxonMobil. It's not Cumberland Farms or CVS. It's no one that you know. It's these groups that have these funny names. You know, Liberty and Freedom for Puppies and Happiness for All.
I think that weirds people out. It moves the politics out of your direct life. You get the institutions of people you engage with. And now it's all masks. And no wonder people are frustrated. Their politics doesn't look like anything they know in natural, practical, real life.
Smith: On the presidential level, Trump was far outraised by Secretary Clinton and by his Republican-primary opponents, especially Gov. Bush. Do you think that the results of the election proved that the influence of money in politics was not as great or not quite as powerful as previously thought?
Whitehouse: Certainly it disproved the notion that there is a direct dollar-for-dollar correlation between how much money you had in your traditional war chest and what your election outcome was going to be. That ... had also been disproven by [Sen.] Dick Blumenthal, who beat Linda McMahon [in Connecticut] with — I think he spent $8 million and she spent $58 million [she spent $50 million]. So you know, sometimes money isn't the determinant. But it sure as hell makes a huge difference. Nobody is saying "Well, thank God we don't need to raise money any longer." It's a very, very big deal to have money, and it is a very, very big deal to have more than your opponent.
Trump had two unprecedented advantages that no one saw coming. One was that he could get immense amounts of free airtime by being provocative. And other people were buying airtime and looking boring and looking like traditional TV ads, which so many people have zoned out, because if you don't know Americans for Puppies and Prosperity, how much do you really want to hear from them? And, I don't know, I've heard estimates it was as much as $1 billion, hundreds of millions of dollars anyway, worth of free airtime.
And then when push came to shove, and he really needed to have the money, it all started pouring in, including a considerable amount from himself. And then the Koch brothers' enterprise, even though it didn't like him, was still active in bringing out the vote and organizing people, and you would bet that the people who were coming out for Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson and for Rob Portman and so forth, Toomey, were all coming out and also, virtually to a person, voted for Trump.
Smith: I wanted to touch on Russia for a moment because I know you're the ranking member on the Senate —
Whitehouse: With Sen. Graham, yes. Wonderful guy.
Smith: Do you think Republicans are now taking these accusations more seriously, and what makes you believe so, either way?
Whitehouse: The private conversation around the Senate is that, very much, this is serious. The experienced Washington reporters that you talk to are all digging. And many of them are very optimistic about being able to find significant things. Somebody in politics can tell when the dogs are hunting and when they're just running around. And these dogs are hunting. They're making game. They're on their business. And then I think the signals are coming out of the intelligence community and the law-enforcement community that this is a long way from over, without giving away any details. So I think that helps. And then I think they wouldn't put it past Trump to do any of this stuff for a second.
So it's already credible considering what they're hearing from their business friends about what doing business with Donald Trump was like, what they're hearing from friends who knew Trump from his private life, his social life, what his activities were like. I think it's all converging to a point where people are collectively holding their breath and we will see what is the next shoe to drop. My personal observation is that there is very little good will for this man with Republicans in the Senate. If any evident concern about not coming after him and getting crosswise with his voters is really the problem. Trump voters are very loyal to Trump, and they don't want to come after him too soon. But, if something comes out that changes that dynamic, if the switch flips, the elevator goes straight to the basement. There's very little in terms of arms reaching out to help him.
And if you look at the Koch brothers' enterprise, it couldn't be happier to get rid of President Trump. It would have the vice president elevated, who was legendarily their guy. It all makes for kind of a Machiavellian, Kremlinologist-type analysis of the administration, which is a little unusual in and of itself.
Smith: I know a story that has gained a bit of traction in recent days is this one involving Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, and this peace plan between Russia and Ukraine. Cohen has changed his answer on this several times. I'm curious, as someone who sits on this subcommittee, what have you made of this story?
Whitehouse: We are just getting started, and we are not in a position at this point to do heavy-duty, first-instance investigative work. So I think by the time we get down to hearings about that, this will have sorted itself out more. So I don't have anything to add to that equation.
Our opening gambit is going to be to do kind of a scene-setter to go through the toolbox that Russia uses in our elections and in other elections to try to engage in election manipulation. And then evaluate that against what the laws are in the United States, which might be illegal, which might be legal ... We can then move on to what was essentially done.
The three big buckets are Russia's importance to Trump's business enterprises and what influence that may have over his conduct. Traditional old-fashioned kompromat. And then engagement between his campaign and the Russians around the torquing of the election away from Hillary. It's one thing if they torqued the election away from Hillary and gave it to him; it's another if they were conspiring with each other or planning with each other. The first is bad, the second is worse.
Smith: I noticed a few Republicans after the recent meeting with FBI Director James Comey came out and made it very clear they were much more open to an investigation regarding Russia, looking into the influence it had on the election. I don't know if you were in on that meeting, but do you know what went down in it and what seemed to be a flip of the switch where Republicans seemed to be much more open to looking into this?
Whitehouse: I don't know whether that switch flipped then or what flipped it. The FBI has been dedicating people and efforts to this for some time, and I think it's pretty clear they feel there is investigation-worthy material. So if people come out of a meeting like that and they feel that this is an investigation that is going to continue that will produce some results at some point, then trying to figure out an organized way to manage that with different investigations in different committees at different times becomes a more logical thing.
It's also an easy thing for people to do at this point. They don't have to say he did anything wrong. They don't have to pretend that nothing wrong took place and run to his defense. They can simply say, 'Well, the question of whether something wrong was done ought to be resolved in X, Y, or Z way.' And that is a safe position to play.
Smith: I know you mentioned Sen. Graham is a great guy. What do you make of how he's handled the early weeks of the Trump administration?
Whitehouse: I think he's been his usual, incredibly politically brave self. A lot of people, as Trump moved forward to becoming the nominee and the president-elect and the president, pulled pretty fast 180s in currying favor and trying to get back into Trump's favor. And I think Lindsey is a very principled person, and he's made his decision about this man. And he will accord him what respect is necessary, but he certainly is not going to go sniffling back begging for forgiveness and favor.
I think he's been deeply concerned as an American — as someone who's spent most of his life in uniform — that this is really bad stuff. And if something along these lines happened, this is something we have got to sort out. It is essential to our patriotism. Well beyond party, well beyond individuals and all that.
Smith: Looking at the first month Trump has been in office, what do you think is going to be the move he made — whether it was policy-related or something else — that you think is going to have the farthest-reaching consequences?
Whitehouse: Letting in all the special interests. It wasn't clear when he was elected that his brand of disruption was not potentially going to be pretty even-handed, and going after sacred cows on all sides. So it's been discouraging for those of us who initially said, 'All right, I don't like this, but let's look to see what he wants to do and see where we can work with him' — to find door after door just slammed in our faces. And I think the coils of the Koch operation are winding around the Oval Office.
My take is that, if Bannon can keep being disruptive and keep Trump tweeting and they get just sort of in their heads about all the fuss and bother their causing all the news reaction, then, quietly, like the Grand Vizier in the old "One Thousand and One Nights" stories, the Koch brothers and Pence can just build an administration around him and he'll never even know what hit him until one day he'll realize 'Wait a minute, I won. I won this presidency, and I'm not running it.' And I think that has begun. And unless he gets his head out of the tweetstorm and starts to look around and figure out who the hell is reporting to him and what is going on, that he could be a figurehead.
He could be the figurehead president for the people he loathed and despised and accused of running beg-a-thons and whose guests he threw off his golf course.
Smith: As for Democrats, what do you think the party has to focus on to win elections in 2018 and 2020? If you could sum it up in, like, three planks the party needs to run on, what would they be?
Whitehouse: One of the reasons I wrote this book is that I think this issue needs to be brought out front and center. If you have to compete with an entity that is actually a front group for a big special interest and you haven't successfully told the story of how it's just the end of the tentacle, then you're going to be at a huge disadvantage.
And what it says will be given more face-value credit by the public than if they knew 'Oh, OK, that's the glove with the Koch brothers hand in it, with Wall Street's hand in it.' It's really important we focus on that. Disclosure ought to be a really, really big deal for us. And calling out the web of denial groups that populate this area so that people know who they are and why they have such benign sounding names. Franklin and Madison and Jefferson and George C. Marshall and Heartland and Heritage. It all sounds so wonderful until you see what it is. So that's a very, very big thing we have to do.
The second thing is, we have to have a really, really strong and simplified economic program. Stuff that people can envision and we can deliver. I've spent 10 years in the Senate now, and the talk about messaging is making me increasingly insane. I don't think you earn the right to a message until you've earned it by having a real fight, really being willing to stand up for what you believe in. And to constantly be jumping from message point to message point, positioning yourself on issues without ever taking a step back, deciding what the hell you're going to do, and jamming it through as best you can, or at least making it one hell of a big fight so that everyone in the country knows that it took place, I think is a mistake.
And there are some obvious things, like student debt, that lend themselves to this. A carbon fee that Republicans have signed off on now has some fairly distinguished company. You can pick others, but I think having just a visible known few that become our "If you elect us, this is what you will get or we will die trying."
And we've got to be solid on the defense side. I think that's where, just not letting ourselves get painted into a soft-on-safety corner. But I think that having a lot of respect for law enforcement and showing it, having a lot of respect for the military and showing it. And getting ahead of the big liabilities, like cybersecurity, are very good places to be. I don't think that's going to be a winning hand for us, but it keeps it from becoming a losing hand. Or a winning hand from becoming a winning hand for the Republicans. They can paint us into the corner — well, I mean, they did it.
Look at 2014, when ISIS popped up and Ebola popped up and the children from Guatemala and Central America were starting to come across the border. And the next thing you know, Fox News had turned that all into the Ebola babies coming over the borders to come slice your head off like ISIS into kind of one big panic. And our Democratic message that election was exactly zero. And we just got crushed as a result.
So that's the proof that we can't let ourselves get boxed in on it. Because, frankly, we had just as good policies if not better in those areas. We just don't talk about them. So those are the three right there.
Smith: So it seems as if there's an overarching theme with those three, whether it be painting as soft on defense, getting a good economic message through, and highlighting corporate influence in politics, is that the messaging just has not been what it needs to be. So what do you think has been the biggest issue — and I know you said you're tired of hearing about messaging — but what's really been the issue with this? How has this not been figured out?
Whitehouse: Well, I think if I knew that I would be a bigger wheel in our operation. I don't know the answer to that. I think partly it comes from the sort of big-tent check-the-box politics that can emerge from a party that has very broad but not particular deep backing. So you've got right with Planned Parenthood, you've got right with the LGBT community, you've got right with public labor unions, you've got right with the private labor unions, you've got right with young voters, and you kind of, every time you do that, there's another added step.
And like the guy with 1,000 nails, nothing penetrates because there are so many nails you can actually lie on them comfortably. Nothing sank through. Hillary's message, I don't think, was all that effective. Particularly on the economic front. And we love, love, love to prove our bona fides by having a really good plan. And nobody wants to hear about a plan. They want a wall or something simple and captivating. And 10-point plans kind of go in the metal disposal bin.
So, I don't know, those are some of my original thoughts. If we were ... if it were just a few more centralized forces who ran our party, then you would say, "All right, these are the sort of three or four things we're pushing on." And to the folks in other industries who aren't part of those three or four, we'd just say, "Look, shut up for now. We're trying to win this election. We'll take care of you when we're in. You know we will. So stand by. You don't have to clamor."
Mike Nudelman/Business Insider
Everybody, to have their issue at the forefront as your measure of success, your measure of success is we get in, and then we deliver for you. And that simply doesn't work on our side the way it does on the other side. It's an uphill fight to get a clear, distinctive, memorable message out of the cacophony of our multiple support groups.
For the other side, it's actually kind of delivered to them by the organizations behind them that dominate in the Republican political background. And Grover Norquist has worked it over, and the communications people have worked it over, Frank Luntz has worked it over, and so I think my colleagues kind of sit on the table reading from the package. When it comes, they go out and sell it. Whereas we're all like out with everybody making sure it's success for us if we get their idea on the table and the platform has to have 90 different parts to it and if anybody is left out they're all jumping up and down about it.
Smith: Does the left need to have a media operation that is ... like some of these online outlets like the Drudge Report or Breitbart that really played a role for Donald Trump?
Whitehouse: We have tried. I don't know why it didn't work. There was the radio station ... Air America, that kind of went bluey ... I think a lot of the people who feel out of step with contemporary society or feel that they've been left back economically or feel disaffected and are drawn to the Republican Party, they are looking for a news source that will tell them something they would like to hear and then is reassuring, emotionally rewarding, and confirming. And affirming to them. So to deliver that product is pretty valuable. It's kind of like they're an insurgency and they're not getting what they need to hear from the mainstream.
We're kind of not that. We read The New York Times and we're happy because we don't feel that it's been cooked or our concerns aren't being listened to or The Washington Post, the LA Times. The mainstream media is something that we're satisfied with. So to try to create a left-wing alternative to that doesn't meet any needs that the regular, real media doesn't already meet for us because, you know, call us more reality-based or kind of successful and satisfied under the current economic and social conditions, compared to people who feel that their religion has been ignored, their town has been ignored, factories have been shut down, or whatever. I just don't think we have the opening.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
What we do have is the question of the "fake news." Because, A, we don't have that skill set. It was developed on the other side for, I believe originally, tobacco health denial. Then it morphed into climate-science denial. And the whole kind of denial enterprise is the original fake news. I mean, you take stuff that makes things that aren't true seem to be. Things that are true seem not to be. Without ever taking a strong enough position that you can be blown up in. And having the capability to do that, the people who have the knowledge of how that works. It's a capability. And it was very well-developed there. And now where we're at has been metastasized out of science denial and go wherever.
So, A, we don't have that skill set, and, B, I don't want that skill set. In a lot of things, they build a tank, we build a tank. They build a fighter plane, we build a fighter plane. Fake news? Nah. I don't think that works. We can't go there. So what we have to do instead is figure out how to shoot down fake news. Or jiu-jitsu it in some way. And we're not even having that conversation. We don't even know what to call it. I mean, until fake news came around, we didn't know what to call it. I was calling it "flying monkeys" because there wasn't a better word. It was just like weird stuff. What the hell is all that?
Smith: Sen. Whitehouse, you have the most ideal last name possible to be in the White House. Would you ever consider such a thing one day?
Whitehouse: I have zero interest. I am the exception to the rule that all senators see themselves in the Oval Office.