There has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth as, in the spring, it appeared that forces supporting Mitt Romney would be able to raise about as much money as those supporting Barack Obama. There’s even more now that it seems likely that the pro-Romney side will raise and spend more money than the pro-Obama side.
Four years ago, the Obama forces heavily outspent those supporting John McCain. The Obama campaign had enough money to target — and carry — heretofore Republican states like North Carolina and Indiana.
That experience made the Democrats spoiled. The prospect that the other side would have as much money as they do struck them as a cosmic injustice. The prospect that it would have more — heaven forfend!
They like to blame this situation on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allows corporations and unions to spend money on political speech. They did so even after their defeat in the June 5 Wisconsin recall election, in which Citizens United had no effect because fundraising was governed by state campaign finance laws.
What’s really interesting is that, if current projections are right, this will be the third election in a row in which the party holding the White House will be outspent by the opposition.
In 2004, incumbent Republican George W. Bush’s side was outspent narrowly by those opposing him and favoring Democrat John Kerry. One reason is heavy spending by billionaire George Soros, about which we heard few complaints from those now decrying the billionaire Koch brothers’ spending as a threat to democracy.
In 2008, Barack Obama broke his promise to rely on public financing and raised and spent about $750 million. About half as much was spent on behalf of John McCain, who accepted public financing.
Now, despite the clout any incumbent president has, Democrats are likely to be outspent by Republicans.
All of which tends to undermine the case made for campaign spending limits. In the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case, the Supreme Court said limits on campaign contributions were constitutional. They didn’t violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech because they were intended to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.
In effect, the Court said that you can abridge First Amendment rights in order to limit “smart money” contributions. Smart money, by definition, goes only to incumbents and candidates with a good chance of winning.
But in our last two presidential elections and apparently in this one, the smart money going to the party in power has been outweighed by “angry money” going to the party out of power.
The billionaires and the many, many others fueling the anti-Bush coffers in 2004 believed that the 43rd president had lied America into an unjustified and probably unwinnable war. I didn’t agree, but, hey, it’s a free country — and people should be free to try to elect the candidate of their choice.
In 2008, Barack Obama raised a lot of “hope” money and, since it looked like a Democratic year, a lot of smart money. But angry money from Bush-haters helped propel his total take to record levels.
This year, there’s no doubt that the billionaires and the many, many others contributing to the Romney campaign and pro-Romney super PACs are angry about the Obama Democrats’ policies and believe they will be harmful to the nation.
In sum, angry money seems to be trumping smart money in American politics these days.
Which leads one to wonder whether the increasingly Sisyphean project of restricting campaign contributions is worth pursuing any longer.
The Supreme Court in Citizens United and other cases seems to be edging toward a reversal of Buckley v. Valeo. There may be five votes in favor of giving political speech the same First Amendment treatment as student armbands, nude dancing and flag burning.
That would just restore the priorities of the Framers, who were sure interested in protecting political speech much more than these other things.
American voter turnout has been rising, and so has Americans’ willingness to contribute money to political causes they think important. These are not negative trends, though incumbents targeted in attack ads tend to think so.
The apparent Republican edge in spending this year, like the Democratic edge in 2004, was evidence of widespread and heartfelt opposition to an incumbent president. It’s a sign of civic health, not sickness.