Muddying the playing field
The havoc that its 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has already wrought on temperate discourse in American politics is being displayed daily, even hourly, in the avalanche of negative ads in the primary and caucus states as they vote on the available candidates.
Mitt Romney has put it, "corporations are people" and have the same First Amendment right of free speech as individual human beings, have brought political pollution to new highs. Authorized by the ruling, the super PACs supporting Romney and Newt Gingrich are outdoing their actual campaigns in venom as well as in cash, to the point they may well end up being counterproductive.
Gingrich's super PAC assault on Romney in the South Carolina primary appeared to achieve the intended result of clobbering him at the polls, and Romney's super PAC returned the favor against Gingrich in the Florida primary. But those successes have come at the price of casting the Republican competition as a putrid exercise in mudslinging that could tarnish the surviving candidate in the fall.
The court's narrow majority decision lifting the previous ban on corporate and union campaign contributions rationalized that independent expenditures devoid of collaboration with a formal campaign "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption" of the sort that would warrant such a ban.
But two liberal Democrats who voted against the decision, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, have recommended that the Supremes take another look at it in light of a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling upholding the state's ban on unlimited corporate and union spending.
The highest federal court has blocked that local ruling, but Ginsburg says such expenditures in Montana and elsewhere "make it exceedingly difficult to maintain" that such independent corporate giving doesn't lead to corruption of the process. While what constitutes corruption may be debatable, the allowing of unlimited spending clearly has resulted in the intensification of negative and demonstrably inaccurate allegations and personal assaults.
Similarly disingenuous this election season is the ludicrous contention that simply because the operatives of a super PAC do not "consult" or "collaborate" with a formal candidate campaign, collusion will not occur. A candidate's formal campaign can simply leave a certain essential function undone, such as buying and airing advertising, knowing the super PAC will move in and fill the gap.
This wink-and-nod arrangement enables a candidate to insist he has no control over what the "unaffiliated" super PAC is airing. At the same time, formal candidate campaign strategists argue that this "independence" can lead to decisions detrimental to their candidate, and that they'd rather to have money contributed directly. Nevertheless, the fact that former campaign or staff aides of the candidates are running the various super PACs make a further mockery of the notion that the two entities are not in cahoots.
In any event, President Obama's recent announcement that his campaign is obliged to encourage big-money supporters to give to the super PAC working in his behalf, rather than committing unilateral disarmament in the money war, puts him on the same low road being traveled by the Republican candidates. And it suggests that what up to now has been mostly a Republican alley brawl will become bipartisan trench warfare, to the detriment of what should be a competition of ideas, policies and qualities of leadership.
Obama's own direct fundraising, while maybe not on a pace to match the $745 million taken in four years ago, has not exactly been left his campaign destitute. His managers have reported $76 million on hand already. Many of his liberal followers, governed by principle, doubtless wish he would have adhered to his opposition to super PACs in deed as well as in word.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)