In the days since the IRS scandal started to unfold, most liberals have tried desperately to stay out of the line of fire by appropriately condemning any illegal or politically biased behavior on the part of the agency. But for many on the left, the politicization of the IRS isn’t the topic they want to discuss–and not just because doing so embarrasses the administration and lends credence to conservative complaints about President Obama’s disdain for the principles of limited government. As far as a lot of liberals are concerned, the problem here isn’t the Nixonian abuse of power by the IRS but the fact that these conservatives are being allowed to raise money to resist the policies of a liberal administration.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke for many Democrats yesterday when she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that the proper response to the scandal is to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protected the ability of groups to exercise their right to political speech. Others, like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, are treating the whole issue as a misdirection play by conservatives who have exploited federal laws that allow groups that engage in advocacy to get nonprofit status.
But liberals, including the editorial writers of the New York Times, who weighed in yesterday to say the IRS should have cracked down across the board rather than on just conservatives, have this wrong. The IRS scandal shows that what the country needs is more unregulated free speech and fewer attempts by the government to limit the ability of citizens to speak out on issues.
Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging federal campaign contribution limits. The current law has long been defended as a way to limit the allegedly corrupting effects of donations to candidates but like every other aspect of the drive to “reform” the campaign finance system these limits have not made the system cleaner or more accountable. To the contrary, the unintended consequences of the laws have made things far worse.
The Supreme Court made a good start in 2010 with its decision in the Citizens United case that rightly struck down elements of the McCain Feingold Campaign finance law that impinged on the free speech rights of contributors and groups. It is time for them to take another step toward dismantling these unwieldy and undemocratic laws by scrapping the contribution limits.
Since the landmark Citizens United decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2010, liberals have been claiming that the ruling would more or less end democracy as we know it. Their fear-mongering on the issue was based on the assumption that freeing up the ability of individuals, groups and businesses to fund political speech would guarantee that money would decide all future elections. That conclusion was patent nonsense. Neither political party has an inherent advantage in raising money, since both have large affluent bases from which to draw funds. But even more important is the fact that while money is essential to giving a candidate a chance, it is by no means a decisive factor in determining the outcome.
These two facts were proved true again this past Tuesday. It is true that Mitt Romney’s defeat was a blow to the big Republican donors who contributed vast sums to help his cause. But as much as the New York Times was able to crow in an editorial published yesterday that the outcome was “A Landslide Loss for Big Money” by which they meant big Republican money, it can just as easily be represented as a win for the big liberal money raised by the Democrats. While the cacophony of competing claims made possible by the approximately $1 billion spent by both parties wasn’t the most edifying spectacle, it did give each ample opportunity to make their cases to the voters. There is nothing corrupt about the free flow of political speech, even in an election as nasty as the one that has just concluded. All that Citizens United did was to make it possible for the competitors’ voices to be heard. That is the essence of democracy and why calls for more efforts to restrict free speech via new, and undoubtedly unconstitutional, campaign finance laws (such as those advocated by the Times) should be ignored.
Out on the campaign trail, members of the House and Senate are currently getting a belly full of free speech as they fight to keep their seats. But many of those who survive would like to do something to make their next elections a bit easier and cheaper. That’s the conceit of a New York Times story about the discomfort many incumbents are experiencing as their records are being examined and often publicized. Their reaction to all this democracy is characteristic of the political class and appears to cut across party lines: suppress as much of the criticism as possible.
The problem for these politicians is that the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision unleashed the power of the public to promote political speech about elections. The fact that much of that speech is unhelpful to incumbents is a prime motivation for them to act in the next Congress to ensure that new obstacles are placed in the way of political action groups and contributors buying ads highlighting their alleged shortcomings. In this way, the Times, whose editorial agenda has been a relentless attack on free political speech, hopes that the largely defunct cause of supposed campaign finance reform will be revived. But the focus of the story on the new willingness of even some Republicans to go along with another round of “reform” reveals exactly why the court was right to invalidate large portions of the McCain-Feingold bill: the main beneficiary of the legislation isn’t free speech or the rights of the public but the protection of incumbents.
For months, as liberals anticipated the Supreme Court would rule ObamaCare unconstitutional, there has been a constant drumbeat of criticism against what they assumed was a conservative majority that would thwart the president’s signature legislation. In particular, Chief Justice John Roberts was the focus of a great deal of uncomplimentary commentary, with many arguing that by leading the Court to the right he would establish a tainted legacy as a partisan judge who had damaged the institution he led. But within moments of the announcement that Roberts had sided with the four liberals on the Court, the “re-evaluation” of the chief justice had begun.
As the New York Times‘s Ethan Bronner wrote in the paper’s Caucus blog, previously, “He was seen by many, at least on the left, as a right-winger more devoted to conservative politics than the purity of the law. That could change.” Count on it.
Liberals are still seething over the way the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Citizens United decision in the Montana campaign finance law case where state restrictions on political spending were rightly overruled. But this defense of free speech rights will not go unanswered by a Democratic Party that thinks allowing citizens and groups to support ideas and candidates is a scandal. That’s why New York’s left-wing attorney general is launching a brazenly partisan attack on the right of political speech in the guise of an investigation of alleged violations of the tax code.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is a hard-line liberal who has been itching to use his post to both fight for restrictive campaign finance laws and to garner the publicity that will enable him to advance his career. On the surface, Schneiderman is merely conducting a probe into contributions to tax-exempt groups. But by focusing his attention on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business conservative group, the political intent of the investigation is obvious.
For those who assume the post-Citizens United world of campaign spending means elections can be bought, the Ohio Senate race is a classic example of a bad candidate being kept afloat by cash. That’s the conceit of a Politico feature today about Josh Mandel, the Ohio Republican who is confounding his critics by staying within striking range of Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown. According to the piece, Mandel ought to have been run out of the race due to a string of bad headlines. However, he has not only saved his candidacy but actually has a shot at winning due, as Politico tells it, to the infusion of out-of-state contributions and ad buys by super PACs that have duped the state’s voters into considering voting for him. But while there is no question that the efforts of the pro-GOP Crossroads America PAC and others like it have helped Mandel, Politico is exaggerating both the impact of money and Mandel’s supposed weakness.
As Politico notes, even Mandel has acknowledged that the support from national conservatives groups is a shot in the arm to his candidacy. Money can buy visibility and get a candidate’s message out to the public, especially when a politician has been pigeonholed as not ready for prime time–a problem the youthful Mandel has encountered. But campaign contributions and television ads can’t buy credibility. All the money in the world couldn’t have won a Christine O’Donnell a Senate seat or put Newt Gingrich in the White House. Though Mandel has had his share of negative stories during his short tenure as Ohio State Treasurer (he was first elected in 2010), the baby-faced Iraq War veteran has demonstrated the sort of intelligence and character that would give any politician a chance, especially against a liberal like Brown in a moderate/conservative state.
It is perhaps to be expected that Sen. John McCain would still be whining about the way the Supreme Court’s Citizens United 2010 decision effectively neutered the campaign finance law he co-authored with Wisconsin liberal Democrat Russ Feingold. McCain is still claiming the decision made politics more corrupt, but he is deaf, dumb and blind about the way his legislation restricted free speech, added further complications to an already byzantine system and drove campaign cash further underground. But while there is nothing remarkable about McCain beating his favorite dead horse, his latest comments cross the line between fair comment and slander.
In an interview with the PBS Newshour program, McCain didn’t just assert that Citizens United is aiding corruption but that the contributions made by Mitt Romney’s leading donor may be the product of “foreign” — and therefore by definition illegal — money. The reference to billionaire Sheldon Adelson — whose billions come in part from casinos in Macao — was a cheap shot, especially as it came directly after McCain predicted there would be “scandals” that would come out of Citizens United. McCain knows very well there is nothing illegal or underhanded about Adelson’s money or his willingness to spend it to promote the causes and candidates he supports. The scandal here isn’t the fact that a billionaire is making money overseas and spending it at home on political speech; it is the willingness of the political class to restrict the right of Americans to have a voice in the political system.
Casino owner Sheldon Adelson became the symbol of what liberals think is the abuse of the campaign finance system this past winter when he and his wife donated $21 million to the failing presidential campaign of their friend Newt Gingrich. Some on the left even floated the preposterous idea that the pro-Israel billionaire had influenced Gingrich to support the Jewish state even though the former Speaker of the House had a record on the issue that long preceded his connection with Adelson. The intense focus on the Adelsons faded after they pulled the plug on Gingrich, but liberal bashers of the couple will get a new reason to scream after reading this report in the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, the Adelsons have given $10 million to a pro-Romney PAC that appears to be the largest single donation to the Republican’s campaign.
Left-wingers and those opposed to Israel will highlight these donations as proof of either the undue influence of the wealthy on our political system or another instance of the fabled pro-Israel lobby manipulating American foreign policy. But while the Adelsons’ contributions are certainly impressive, they are no more sinister than those of left-wing magnates like George Soros or the way the pro-Arab oil lobby throws its cash around. More to the point, despite the effort to paint the couple as somehow being the Republican puppet masters, their participation in the campaign proves just the opposite. Their money may give the ideas and the candidates they like a hearing, but they can’t buy an election.
In yet another sign the bloom is off the Democratic rose this year, the New York Times reports a split between party officials and leading donors may cause liberals to squander their opportunity to answer pro-Republican advertising campaigns this year. This may mean that while supporters of the GOP will pour their money into super PACs that will buy ads aimed at supporting their candidates and opposing President Obama and other Democrats, their counterparts on the left, including billionaire financier George Soros, will instead spend their money on voter turnout efforts that would duplicate those being undertaken by the party.
This decision stems in no small part from liberal objections to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protected the right of groups as well as individuals to express their views on the issues and elections via campaign spending. Because liberals like Soros think freedom of speech when it comes to campaign expenditures should be limited, they prefer not to compete in the marketplace of ideas with conservative funders and instead concentrate their efforts on other aspects of the campaign. This is a critical mistake on their part and reflects a curious though perhaps prescient pessimism.
Ironies abounded in the Sunday New York Times’ front-page feature about union efforts to force the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The newspaper is right about the fact that the recall may turn out to be a warm up for the presidential election this fall, but it speaks volumes about both the bias of the piece that nowhere in it does the Times mention the fact that all the recent polls of the contest show him ahead and gaining ground. Flawed though the piece was, it also served to skewer one of the main political narratives that the Times has worked so hard to promote in the last year: that the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision was undermining democracy.
As the article illustrates, far from the court’s defense of freedom of speech harming the political process, what it has done is to allow the free flow of ideas — and the cash that helps bring those ideas into the public square — to flourish as the public is presented with a clear choice between Walker’s attempt to reform public expenditures and the union movement’s effort to defend the status quo.
President Obama has a huge lead on Mitt Romney when it comes to campaign fundraising, but that margin shrinks significantly when Super PACs are added into the pictures. Pro-Romney Super PACs have been raising cash steadily, but the pro-Obama Priorities USA group has had trouble bringing in donors, Bloomberg reports:
Through March, only 12 of Obama’s 532 top fundraisers had donated to Priorities USA Action, a super political action committee created to support his re-election. Priorities has only raised about $9 million compared to a combined $80 million brought in by the two main super-PACs dedicated to defeating Obama: American Crossroads, formed by Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, a group backing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The leaders of Priorities have asked former President Bill Clinton to tap the pool of donors who helped fund his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s White House run. Yet Priorities lacks on its donor list most of the core group of Chicagoans who backed Obama’s presidential ambitions four years ago.
One government professor quoted in the story speculated that Democrats are wary about giving money to Priorities USA because they feel that negative advertising is unseemly. That’s absurd. Democrats are just as ruthless when it comes to negative ads as Republicans are. But there are other political reasons these Democrats might be hesitant about donating to Super PACs. Liberals almost universally condemn the Citizens United ruling. People give to politicians in part because it makes them feel good, like they’re behind a worthy cause. But many liberals would probably feel like hypocrites – like they’re betraying their ideals – if they give through a fundraising channel they’ve claimed is corrupting politics.
The primary defeat of an incumbent Republican member of Congress on Tuesday in Ohio has provoked some cries of dismay from the media and other sectors of the chattering classes. No one really cares about Rep. Jean Schmidt, who lost her race in her Cincinnati-area district to a relatively unknown podiatrist. But the reason for concern we are told is the fact that Schmidt was, in part, taken down by a GOP insurgency in which a super PAC played a significant role. That’s the conceit of a New York Times feature this morning about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that limited the federal government’s ability to restrict political speech in the form of election advertisements. A Houston-based political action committee called the Campaign for Primary Accountability spent about $200,000 to help defeat Schmidt and is taking an active role in other races where incumbents are being challenged.
The Times story attempts to paint such super PACs as tools of corporate interests, which fits in with the liberal critique of Citizens United as undermining democracy. But the real moral of this story is very different. By making it easier for groups to spend money promoting their ideas and/or opposing candidates, the court has destroyed the dynamic of most congressional races in which it was virtually impossible for challengers to raise enough money to take on entrenched incumbents. The victim of Citizens United isn’t democracy; it’s the laws and traditions of congressional politics that amounted to a near-foolproof incumbent protection plan.
Comedian Bill Maher made headlines yesterday by announcing he is giving $1 million to President Obama’s super PAC. The donation to Priorities USA Action was, Maher said, “the wisest investment I think I could make,” because he considers that living in a country governed by Obama rather than the Republicans is “worth a million dollars.” Anything a person like Maher does must be seen as a publicity stunt. but it will likely also be treated as proof of the absurdity of a system that allows wealthy people to use their money to promote their views. Maher’s million-dollar check will be seen as a sacrifice on the altar of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the floodgates for private groups and individuals to put their money where their mouths are.
But though his intent may be to satirize or to undermine existing law, Maher’s action is not only entirely appropriate; it is proof that the high court’s ruling was correct. If Maher believes Barack Obama should be re-elected, then neither the government nor those of us who disagree with him should have any right to stop him from spending his money in this fashion. Donations to candidates or causes, whether large or small, are a form of political speech. He is as entitled to his right to promote his side as a Republican like Sheldon Adelson or a fellow leftist such as George Soros.