The latest TV spot for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is like any other American political ad. “When Lindsey Graham’s in Washington, what does he do?” a voice-over asks. “He stands up for South Carolina VALUES.” The Republican Graham is seen on a talk show tearing a strip off ObamaCare. He complains about wasteful fiscal-stimulus spending. And then he returns to the great theme, the ever-pursued white whale of American political advertising: energy independence. “The President says I’m for ‘all of the above’ when it comes to energy?” asks Graham. “Well, those are words comin’ out of his mouth; they don’t come from his heart. No Keystone pipeline, no drilling in the Gulf.”
The interesting part doesn’t come until the fine print reveals who authored and paid for the ad: something called “Americans for a Conservative Direction.” That’s what has Washington buzzing: Americans for a Conservative Direction is a subsidiary of FWD.us, a lobby group funded by Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire founder of Facebook. This unassuming minute-long commercial represents the arrival of a potentially devastating money vector in American politics.
No one would have expected it to land on the side of a moderate southern Republican, but that is the cunning of FWD.us: its initial effort consists of both a Republican front group and a parallel Democratic one, the Council for American Job Growth, which bought a similar spot for Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Zuckerberg’s idea, laid out explicitly in an April 10 Washington Post op-ed, is for FWD.us to focus on immigration reform, improved science and math education and public support for research.
It’s that first item that FWD.us cares most about, pocketbook-wise, and it’s the most timely, with the “Gang of Eight” border-security-and-immigration bill being hammered out in Congress. Founders of FWD.us include Silicon Valley bigwigs and Zuckerberg cronies such as Napster co-founder Sean Parker (remember him? Justin Timberlake in the movie?), venture-capital billionaire John Doerr and tech-investing legend Jim Breyer. Also, some dude named Bill Gates.
Foreign workers with elite cognitive skills are the lifeblood of the Valley; maybe, like me, you know a few of those Canadian “foreigners,” and you know how immigration matters devour their energy and patience while they are in the States as anything but citizens. The Gang of Eight bill is a bipartisan deal to strengthen border security while streamlining the path to citizenship for immigrants working in the U.S. It would create a “registered provisional immigrant” class whose members could leave and re-enter America more easily, apply for green cards without having to risk a trip to a U.S. consulate back home and, in theory, expedite the wait for permanent status.
An open-borders advocate would say that all this will help Silicon Valley recruit the world’s best and brightest and encourage them to enrich America with their ability—which is definitely true. A nativist would say it will lower labour costs for greedy Valley plutocrats—which is also true. Either way, it’s an all-consuming priority for American high-tech—so much so that Zuckerberg and co. seem quite happy to trash one of his traditional pet causes, “clean energy,” and bankroll pro-Keystone XL propaganda, of all things.
Graham doesn’t face re-election until autumn of 2014, but he is one of the brokers of the Gang of Eight deal, and he was already widely scorned as a Republican In Name Only. There is talk of a Tea Party challenge in the party primary. Zuckerberg’s strategy is clear and, given the aim, probably sound: pump money to threatened moderate candidates, fend off the American-authenticist fringe (which is justifiably suspicious of the bill’s border-security provisions) and muscle the consensus immigration reform through without getting too particular about other issues.
Environmentalists who share climate scientist James Hansen’s belief that Keystone XL is the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” are furious with Zuckerberg. (Sample blog headline: “This just in: Mark Zuckerberg is a bad guy.”) It is possible that Zuckerberg has seen what has happened in the U.S. Midwest over the last six months and has concluded that the “fuse” will be lit with railcars, if not by pipeline. Maybe, with his fairly close ties to President Barack Obama, he knows executive approval is a done deal and Graham’s attacks will be forgotten. Or maybe he’s just cynically serving his industry’s narrow immediate interests?
On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh