‘Citizens United’ Still a Threat

The hundreds of millions of dollars from billionaires seeking to control the outcomes of Campaign 2012 largely failed as their preferred Republicans mostly went down to defeat. But these gushers of money remain a threat to American democracy, says Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

Forty years ago, as a young, aspiring political operative, I was a staff member on Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign. We thought we could beat Richard Nixon but famously lost every state in the union except Massachusetts (with the District of Columbia thrown in as a forlorn consolation prize).

To commit to the presidential campaign lifestyle endless hours and damn little charm you really have to believe, no matter what, that your candidate will win. So last week I wasn’t surprised by the many stories about how the Romney team was convinced they would emerge victorious, polling evidence to the contrary, to the point where reportedly they had a fireworks display poised for ignition above Boston Harbor when the requisite electoral votes were achieved.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against President Barack Obama couldn’t deliver the presidency to Republican Mitt Romney. (Photo credit: mittromney.com)

But what I don’t understand is building a castle in the air and even in defeat trying to keep paying rent on it, almost all evidence to the contrary.

For years, the right wing has been living in its own version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, an alternative and fanciful, fierce universe rarely bearing resemblance to real life but for odd, embittered moments like the one at President Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago on Election Night, when Fox News’ Ed Henry dourly announced, “The crowd is near pandemonium now, despite the fact that unemployment is hovering near eight percent.”

Talk about a party pooper. This all has been going on since at least 2004, when an unnamed aide to George W. Bush widely thought to be Karl Rove told journalist Ron Suskind, “We create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Last week, that so-called reality collided with one huge fact that a younger, more ethnically diverse and liberal population is increasing in size.

Resistance is futile, as they say in those science fiction movies, but as long as the conservative Right live in a media cocoon and act like sightless bats, trying to find their way with high frequency shrieking that bounces off the walls and only they can hear, you’ve got trouble, my friends. Even Dick Morris, that unctuous pollster and paragon of propriety, had to admit that his prediction of a Romney landscape was wrong because, “This isn’t your father’s America.”

But then there’s the money. On the McGovern campaign, I was paid the munificent sum of $40 a week. In those days, it was considered a decent salary for political work, especially as most of us slept on other people’s couches, ate free meals usually prepared by liberal faculty wives (I haven’t been able to look at gazpacho since) and frankly, there never was time to spend it anyway.

So to me, the contrast with today’s paychecks for top campaign staffers and consultants is especially stunning. Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported, “In the presidential race alone, the two main media firms working for President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney earned profits for handling more than half a billion dollars of campaign advertising, according to disclosures and ad tracking data. Neither company is required to report how much it received in compensation for that work, but their combined cut could easily be $25 million or more at standard industry rates.”

As for salaries, “Romney paid his top advisers more than Obama paid his, including handing out about $500,000 in bonuses for senior staff in August and September, records show. As of Oct. 17, campaign manager Matt Rhoades had received $292,000 in salary and bonuses, compared with $197,000 for Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.”

Not the megamillions paid to Wall Street CEO’s, but nonetheless that’s a lot of gazpacho.

As others have noted, Karl Rove is in deep explaining mode, rationalizing what happened to those hundreds of millions the fat cats spent bankrolling his saturation bombing of attack ads against the President and other Democrats who emerged victorious in spite of the wrath of Rove. And he’s not alone.

“Never before has so much political money been spent to achieve so little,” the Post noted. “Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no discernible effect on the outcome of most races. Indeed, if election investments are like the stock market, a lot of billionaires just lost their shirts.”

But as Nicholas Confessore writes in The New York Times, “Though the outcome of the 2012 elections dealt a blow to the wealthy donors who poured several hundred million dollars into groups seeking to defeat Mr. Obama, the president’s re-election does not presage a repudiation of the deregulated campaign financing unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Instead, his victory most likely reinforced the practice.

“In virtually every respect, the growth of unlimited fund-raising and the move of outside groups to the mainstream of politics have magnified the already outsize role of money in political campaigns. They have changed how incumbents and challengers alike campaign and raise money, altered how voters experience politics, and expanded the influence of a small group of large donors on the policies and messages espoused by candidates.”

What’s more, the non-partisan, investigative journalism group, The Center for Public Integrity, notes that outside spending indeed made a “big difference in state-level races.” They report, “Contests for the top executive and judicial spots, in states whose bans on corporate outside spending were invalidated by the [Citizens United] ruling, were newly shaped by unlimited cash from out-of-state corporate and union treasuries.”

You may think that such mixed results might dampen enthusiasm for restoring campaign finance reform or even overturning Citizens United with a constitutional amendment.  Think again.

On Election Day, voters in both Montana and Colorado passed by three-to-one margins orders directing legislators to support an amendment. That makes 11 states in all, according to the group Free Speech for People.org, which is about a quarter of the way toward getting the deed done if all the proper i’s and t’s were to be dotted and crossed.

The question is whether this groundswell for transparency and reform continues and builds or whether the candidates and incumbents so dependent on transfusions of campaign cash smother the effort in its crib. But like that old joke about what you call 500 politicians at the bottom of the ocean, it’s a good start.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the think tank Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.

6 comments for “‘Citizens United’ Still a Threat

  1. Matt Palmer
    November 15, 2012 at 15:35

    The mostly Democratic victories in this latest election will give the Citizen KANES United types, the Neo-Cons, all the supply-siders, corporate fascists, Libertarians, it will allow them to excuse all of the money in American politics by claiming that it did not matter, all the poor liberals won anyway. (See? All of your worry about Citizens United was unnecessary; it’s union money you must restrict.)
    Citizen KOCHS United, Citizen KANES United. The wealthy are not against the unions to which they belong, are they? They are united against you, though. Citizens United? Citizen Kanes United, more like.

  2. Otto Schiff
    November 15, 2012 at 01:52

    Without Jews and Israel, Rhemat would have to work for a living.

  3. neoconned
    November 14, 2012 at 18:27

    re: this article- DUH!

    Of course Citizens United is still a threat. Nothing has been done about it, and it has only been a week since the election. I don’t think that the Congress is even back in session yet, and the author wants action. I don’t see either party pushing any changes as they both have more important fish to fry. It will be up to the people to push this issue, and we have not had time to organize around the issue yet.

  4. Stephen Justino
    November 14, 2012 at 17:30

    The fact that Obama’s Super PAC money appears to have cancelled out Romney’s Super PAC money does not mean that Super PAC money is not a huge problem in our elections.

    The torrent of Super PAC money to BOTH the Democratic and Republican parties is the reason we ended up having a choice between two pro-big business candidates. It was no accident that neither Obama or Romney mentioned global warming in the debates. They each had hundreds of millions of reasons NOT to mention it.

    Additionally, while the impact of Corporate Super PAC money appears to be muted at the Presidential and Senatorial levels, the impact is undeniable down ballot, and on citizens initiatives. Take California’s Prop 37, for example. It is believed that corporate giants, like Monsanto, spent over $50 million dollars to successfully “convince” California voters that knowing what is in their food is a bad idea!

    The twin evils of “Corporate Personhood” and “Money as Free Speech” are literally killing our small d/small r democratic republic. We, the People, need to retake control of our government from the Corporations, and the Plutocrats, who have stolen our government from us.

    The only way to do that is to amend the U.S. Constitution so that it says, clearly, and unequivocally, that: 1) Inalienable Constitutional Rights belong to human beings, only; and, that 2) money is not speech, and that the raising and spending of money in politics can be regulated.

    To read a proposed Constitutional amendment that would do just that, go to http://www.movetoamend.org/democracy-amendments.

    Steve Justino
    National Executive Committee
    Move to Amend

  5. nora king
    November 14, 2012 at 13:33

    Thanks for keeping the subject of corrupt money on the table. In support of your points is the under reported work of Fred Karger. He sued for financials and recently exposed the role of Later Day Saint staff and money in defeating 33 gay marriage initiatives and was able to point out just how much more level the playing field was this year because the money went to Romney instead of vilifying gays. Taking the bad money out made a dramatic difference.Law suits for full disclosure will have to be clever under Citizens, but so be it.

  6. nora king
    November 14, 2012 at 13:22

    rehmat, why do you have to put your anti-semetic phraseology like “jew journalist” in a primary position over content? Is it more important to hurt progressive jews who read this than communicate?

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