Citizen's United: The New Role of Money in Politics
There are a number of obvious reasons the 2012 election will be different from 2008. Four years ago, Democrats could take comfort in the atrocious approval ratings then-President George Bush was saddled with, and a dismal economy then worked to their advantage. Four years later, George Bush is widely disliked but has largely receded from the public's eye, and the middling economy is now President Obama's albatross as he seeks re-election. However, there is one other way in which the tables have been turned on Democrats. In 2008, Obama enjoyed a 3:1 spending advantage over his opponent John McCain. Now in the era of unlimited contributions to SuperPACs, a clear Republican financial advantage has emerged that has Democrats on the run.
In January 2010 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that sent shock waves throughout the political universe. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy's opinion ruled that the McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign finance, which had prohibited corporations and unions from using their general resources to fund “electioneering communications” was in violation of the First Amendment. By the Court's logic, any campaign contribution is a form of free speech, and thus the bans on corporate and union contributions were unconstitutional.
The rest is history. Liberals were outraged, declaring that the Court decision was judicial activism at its worst. Democratic observers noted that the Court's reasoning—the shaky tenet that giving money is somehow free speech—opened the floodgates for vast sums of money, much of it from anonymous donors, to be channeled into influencing American elections. Democratic senators swiftly issued statements condemning the ruling, but the most high-profiled criticism naturally came from President Obama himself. In his weekly radio address shortly after the ruling, Obama declared that the ruling served to further dilute the voice of ordinary Americans in Washington, while enhancing the influence of powerful interests groups even further. “I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest,” he said, and made further news by denouncing the ruling at his 2010 State of the Union Address, in front of the nine sitting Justices.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement that the Supreme Court had struck a blow for the First Amendment. While some Republicans, John McCain chief among them, condemned the ruling, there was mostly approval and excitement on the GOP side. After all, Republicans were poised to benefit most from the ruling, with their governing philosophy more closely matching the business interests of America's wealthy.
The most significant development of the ruling was the creation of SuperPACs, or political action committees that do not make donations to parties or candidates, and do not coordinate with parties or candidates as they try to shape policy through advertising. Before Citizens United, these committees had been mere PACs, restricted by maximum donations of $2,300 per contributor. Now there are no maximum contributions, a development that a few billionaires have seized upon. In the Republican primary, it was the single-handed support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that kept Newt Gingrich alive; Adelson wrote the pro-Gringrich PAC a 30 million dollar check, and Santorum likewise was able to stay competitive thanks in part to millions of dollars from his deep-pocketed supporter, billionaire Foster Friess.
And that was just spending for the primary. With the general election picking up steam, millionaires and billionaires are joining in on the fun, and most of the action is on the Republican side. The Koch brothers, valued at north of $40 billion combined, have already pledged to raise up to $400 million for the conservative cause. Sheldon Adelson bounced back from his lost $30 million dollar investment like only a billionaire can, donating $10 million to the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future and promising to give a total of $100 million before the election is over.
Democrats haven't been totally left out to dry. The Court's ruling also lifted donation bans from unions, which are traditionally strong supporters of Democrats. There are some rich Democrats in this country who have written seven-figure checks to President Obama's SuperPAC, Priorities USA. And of course, there are some liberal billionaires in this country. The problem is, they aren't getting out their wallets. A combination of lingering disillusionment with Obama, and strong dislike of SuperPACs in liberal circles, has complicated Democratic outreaches to the wealthy. The numbers reflect this. Restore Our Future has outpaced Priorities USA by ten to one, leading President Obama to make the grim prediciton that he would be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election.
It's been proven, then, what the Citizen's United decision and this new era of unlimited campaign contributions means for the nation's powerful. It means the ability to shape elections by raining attack ads on political opponents, and it has guaranteed a strong voice in the political process for oil titans, casino magnates, hedge fund managers, media moguls and anyone else who can casually give millions of dollars. It also offers these corporate leaders a shrewd business move; they can spend tens of millions now in order to save billions of dollars in taxes in a Romney administration.
But there is still one question that everyone should think about. As America drifts even further into the unprecedented outside influence of the SuperPAC era, we can certainly expect big oil, banks, corporate giants and Wall Street to matter more in the fight to determine our next government. And that raises the question—when all of this comes to pass, what will it mean for you?