Super PAC donors acting as kingmakers in presidential contest
— The Washington Post Feb. 22, 2012
WASHINGTON — When Communists and sympathizers made excuses for Stalin’s terror, they said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” To which George Orwell responded, “Where’s the omelet?”
The Post, dismayed about super PACs, reports “a rarefied group of millionaires and billionaires acting as kingmakers in the GOP contest, often helping to decide, with a simple transfer of money, which candidate might survive another day.” Kingmakers? Where’s the king?
If kingmaking refers to, say, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino owner, keeping Newt Gingrich’s candidacy afloat with large infusions to the super PAC supporting Gingrich, then kingmaking isn’t what it used to be. Notice that the fellow with the most muscular super PAC, Mitt Romney, has failed to vanquish a singularly weak set of rivals. Might the power of political dollars be finite, and utility of the last dollar be less than that of the first? Who knew?
Every melodrama requires a villain, and the people currently hysterical about super PAC money in politics blame the 2010 Citizens United decision, wherein the Supreme Court held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on political advocacy as long as they do not coordinate with candidates or campaigns. The court’s unremarkable logic was that individuals do not forfeit their First Amendment speech rights when they come together in corporate entities or unions to speak collectively. What is the constitutional basis for saying otherwise?
This decision’s practical effect is primarily in empowering unions and incorporated nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association. But The New York Times, which cannot have read it, says (Jan. 10) Adelson’s spending “underscores” how Citizens United “has made it possible for a wealthy individual to influence an election.” Many columnists and commentators embrace this solecism.
Actually, Citizens United has nothing to do with Adelson and others who are spending their own money, not any corporation’s. People have done this throughout the nation’s life, and doing so was affirmed as a constitutional right in the court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision.
Critics of super PACs — critics who were remarkably reticent in 2004 when George Soros was lavishing his own money on liberal advocacy — often refer to them as “outside groups,” much as Southern sheriffs used to denounce civil rights workers as “outside agitators.” Pray tell: Super PACs are outside of what? Is the political process a private club with the parties and candidates controlling membership?
It might be more wholesome for the speech-financing money that is flowing to super PACs to go instead to the parties and candidates’ campaigns. But the very liberals who are horrified by super PACs (other than Barack Obama’s) have celebrated the laws that place unreasonable restrictions on such giving.
All this was predicted 11 years ago by Washington’s pre-eminent campaign lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, in a report (available online at www.conservative.org) with a section titled, “OK, Fine, Let George Soros Replace the DNC” (Democratic National Committee). Writing before the McCain-Feingold speech restrictions were passed, Mitchell presciently said: Pass them and money will still fund political advocacy. It will, however, flow into special committees that, forbidden to coordinate with candidates, will spend money for speech for which candidates cannot be held accountable.
The threshold choice is this. Americans can keep the system they currently have — campaigns financed by voluntary contributions of after-tax dollars from individuals eager to participate in politics by funding the dissemination of political advocacy they favor. Or they can choose government funding of politics. The latter is what many critics of Citizens United want, although they are as sly about their real aim as they are confused about Citizens United.
The one certainty about campaign finance laws is that all of them are, and ever will be, written by incumbent legislators. Were Congress to write laws establishing government financing of campaigns, Congress would be uncharacteristically parsimonious, setting the government funding low enough to handicap challengers to well-known and entrenched incumbents.
Happily, such laws will never be written because voters, those puzzling nuisances, do not want a new entitlement program — welfare for politicians. We know this because every year Americans have a chance to check a box on their tax returns to give $3 — without increasing their tax liability — to fund presidential campaigns. More than 90 percent refuse to do so.
Perhaps they object to funding candidates they oppose. Who knew?