Will Reid's Koch Bashing Work?

David Koch
The Senate Majority Leader may please his base by knocking David Koch and his brother, but is anyone else listening? Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Around the Senate, people are used to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid being indignant and occasionally intemperate. His most notorious gaffe came in 2008 when Reid remarked that the then Senator from Illinois Barack Obama didn't have a "negro dialect," something the Nevadan quickly apologized for and which Obama quickly accepted.

But usually the 74-year-old's agitation is directed at the Republican minority, who have, to an unprecedented degree, used parliamentary maneuvers to stymie Democratic legislation. Reid's anger was notable this week when he tore into the Koch brothers, the billionaires who have been pouring millions into conservative causes.

First Reid said anti-Obamacare ads from the Koch Brothers group, Americans for Prosperity, were all lies. Then he walked that back, modestly, saying "the vast, vast majority of their claims" were lies and the industrialists "were about as un-American as anyone I can imagine. " Reid had been hitting the Kochs all month, but this latest round was particularly bloody.

Koch bashing is, of course, a Democratic mantra, not just a sign of Reid's dyspepsia. Last month the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) noted it was raising money to counter Americans for Prosperity, which is one of those curious 501(c)4 committees that can spend money to promote an issue as part of its (some say dubious) charitable work, but does not have to disclose donors.

"The Koch brothers are spending a fraction of their personal fortune to buy a Senate that is good for them and bad for almost every other family in America," DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil said earlier this month.

"While Republicans can rely on the Koch brothers, we depend almost entirely on grassroots donors and thousands of generous people from around the country to make sure that we have a senate that works for the middle class."

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Larry Downing/Reuters

Meanwhile Democratic candidates are invoking the Koch brothers in fundraising appeals and crying foul when Americans for Prosperity ads start airing in their media markets.

Given how much Americans for Prosperity is already spending during this campaign cycle, more even than the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, it's understandable Reid and other Democrats pillory the Kochs in the most pungent way. Why play nice when you're getting beaten up?

What's more, the Kochs have become like Fox News, Dick Cheney or Ted Cruz for Democrats--hatred-inducing names that animate the party's activists. No wonder Democratic consultants are telling clients that pushing back against the Kochs is smart politics.

The issue for Reid and Democrats is how much Koch should they drink? The septuagenarians are, in the end, private citizens, albeit ones you won't see too often at Wal-Mart. It's one thing to attack another politician, but going after, well, a civilian, whether it's J.P. Morgan at the turn of the century or Jane Fonda in the 1960s for her visit to North Vietnam, risks being seen as inappropriate and can animate the opposition as well as your own peeps.

Bill Clinton's arguably well justified jibes at Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol in the early 1990s only built up their broadcast and magazine franchises respectively. Reid and other Democrats will have to weigh the risks of blowback.

Ignoring the Kochs isn't an option for Democrats, but reflexive harangues could backfire. First, it's bound to draw attention to a more reassuring aspect of the Koch story.

The two Koch Brothers who still run their company, Koch Industries, thought to be the second largest privately held company in the U.S., are quick to portray themselves as hard-working job creators who give to charity and don't deserve invectives from public servants.

And when the pair, David and Charles, aren't buying slash-and-burn ads, they have a record of charitable acts that soften the Democratic blows--everything from Sloan-Kettering Medical Center to the American Museum of Natural History's Koch dinosaur wing and the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) literally in between.

What's more, their politics are more complex than they are portrayed. Their views are as libertarian as they are conservative and they admire the free market ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school of economics. David Koch was the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980.

You can accurately say they want to slash government. But calling them anti-gay or anti-immigrant, two epithets the Democrats would love to affix to them, seems a stretch.

Democrats are right that the Koch brothers group's portrayal of Obamacare is a lampoon which ignores its accomplishments, like the popular never-lose-coverage-for-preexisting-conditions stipulation. Democrats would be crazy not to point that out.

But what will really help Reid hold the Senate is having Obamacare unfold as smoothly as possible between now and election day. Stating and restating the obvious--Republicans are buoyed by a rising tide of Koch brothers money--seems familiar, less of a winning issue than announcing a surge in young, healthy people signing up under the Affordable Care Act.

With the Supreme Court likely to loosen campaign funding even further in an upcoming case, building on its Citizens United opinion that unleashed a torrent of Koch money, the issue of who funds campaigns will only become more prominent.

But if the Democrats use an upcoming ruling to rollout a familiar headline--Two Rich Guys Shovel Money to Republicans!--well, that would tiresome.

In fact, it is already.