I'm a little shaky on the social geography of WeHo (a.k.a. West Hollywood), so I called friends in the entertainment business to get a fix on the Voyeur club. You know the place: the bondage-themed nightspot where a few Young Eagle Republican donors kicked back (at GOP expense) after a boring policy dinner in Beverly Hills. I learned that the club's building once housed a lesbian dance place called Peanuts. At a theater nearby you can catch a play called Puppetry of the Penis. And yet despite (or rather, as a result of) its location on Santa Monica Boulevard, Voyeur is a hot club, drawing young celebs, real and faux, and hosting events sponsored by Us Weekly, Maxim, and Heidi Klum. Forbes magazine even suggested it was the kind of scene where young, restless billionaires might want to spend time.
Everyone inside the Beltway points to the Republican National Committee's night on the town—young dorks in way over their heads—as proof that the RNC is a mess and that chairman Michael Steele has to go. Maybe, but the story is also emblematic of something deeper and not nearly so amusing: the sad, sordid way we pay for our campaigns. The eager GOP operatives may have gotten a little careless in their choice of location, but they were just doing what fundraisers do: servicing the egos of the donors and bundlers who bankroll politics. "We are the Facebook generation, so things happen spontaneously," says a Young Eagle, who spoke on the condition that I not disclose his name (but don't worry, mom: he wasn't at the club). "This was a mistake, obviously, but we always look for cool, programmatic opportunities."
Talk about bondage. It feels like we are in thrall to cash and the pursuit of it as never before. I know senators in both parties who spend every spare minute in the soul-shrinking exercise of dialing for dollars. Donors are just as trapped. Once they're on a list, they're on every list. "It's ridiculous what my call sheet looks like," David O'Connor, a leading Hollywood agent and a top Democratic donor, told me. "I know I'm a part of it, but I think that the system is completely broken."
You don't have to be Michael Moore to know that the main thing wrong with "the system" is not what it does to politicians or donors, but what it does to government. I can pinpoint the moment when the derivatives crisis began: it was in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Chicago in 1996. The Democratic convention was underway, and the hotel was a gathering spot for a new generation of business types—the hedge-fund crowd—who had become big-buck "soft money" donors to Bill Clinton's Democratic Party. They were growing rich by inventing new forms of leverage, and didn't much fancy the idea of the feds stepping in to regulate their risky creations. George W. Bush's Pioneers and Rangers agreed. And so did many of Barack Obama's rich 2008 donors. Admirably, Obama raised more cash from small contributions than any candidate ever, but he also amassed more bundlers and large donations than anyone—and there were more from the financial industry than any other sector.
Is there any way out of this morass of money? Apparently not; in fact, we are wading in deeper now that the Supreme Court has said corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries. The White House and Hill Democrats have put together a reform plan, the core of which would be instant disclosure of who is really paying for the "independent" ads that will flood the airwaves this fall. But it's not at the top of the to-do list and probably wouldn't pass anyway—especially now that ex-maverick John McCain has dropped out of the reform movement for election season.
Meanwhile, over at the White House, they've installed as social secretary—manager of state dinners, guest visits, and such—the superbly connected Julianna Smoot. She was Obama's finance director and is regarded as perhaps the best money wrangler ever. Will generous donors find themselves blessed with tickets to state dinners, or invitations to movie night with the Obamas in the White House theater? Spokesman Robert Gibbs notes that this is the first White House to disclose the names of all visitors, which means that "there won't be an appearance problem." But that's naive at best. "Given Smoot's fundraising background, her decisions are going to be closely watched," says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics. As savvy as she is, Smoot isn't likely to lead a posse to the Voyeur club. But she doesn't have to. She has a much nicer venue at her disposal.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.