Prestige political journalism is so frequently brain-dead or bankrupt, it’s worthwhile to note those occasions when someone whose byline appears below a fancy masthead pens something insightful and true. And this is especially worthwhile if the good work in question comes from even-the-liberal-New Republic.
So it is with great pleasure that I present a recent, excellent piece from TNR‘s Alec MacGillis — a takedown of that paragon of Village Wisdom, Matt Bai, and his recent attempt to downplay the significance of Citizens United:
Everyone loves a good counter-intuitive story, but Washington loves one sort in particular: the kind that assures us all that something we’ve been led to believe was a worrisome problem is, in fact, not all that big a deal after all, thus allowing us to return to watching “Veep” or “The Newsroom.” Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine offered a classic of this form, a Matt Bai piece arguing that the Citizens United ruling of 2010 is not nearly as responsible for the boom in campaign spending by outside groups as those whiny goo-goo types make it out to be[.]
Bai’s argument basically rests on the fact that campaign spending has been increasing near-exponentially for a while now, certainly before the Supreme Court decided it was long past time to remove the boot-heel of government from the Koch brothers’ necks. And that’s true enough. But what Bai ignored — despite apparently speaking at-length with campaign law expert Rick Hasen when conducting research for the article — is the way Citizens United removed the under-appreciated but very real financial penalties that used to loom above anyone hoping to circumvent electoral finance law:
As I told Matt, and what’s missing from this piece, is the realization that there was considerable legal risk in giving to a 527 before Citizens United and its aftermath. As one reader to commented to me, “Matt’s article suggests that not much has changed post-Citizens United because even prior to the CU decision, “you would have been free to write a check for any amount to a 527 . . . .” This is untrue and all three groups Matt cites were determined by the FEC to have violated federal law during the 2004 cycle. ACT paid a $775,000 fine (http://www.fec.gov/press/press2007/20070829act.shtml). SwiftVets paid a $299,500 fine (http://www.fec.gov/press/press2006/20061213murs.html). Club for Growth paid a $350,000 fine (http://www.fec.gov/press/press2007/20070905cfg.shtml).
If Sheldon Adelson really was planning on giving $100 million to 527s before the Citizens United revolution to support a presidential candidate, you can bet that there would be a criminal investigation and very serious charges considered. i have serious doubts Adelson or anyone else would have risked this (much less corporations giving considerable sums to 501c4s for election-related activity). Now we can debate (and I have debated with others) whether the law barring contributions greater than $5,000 to independent expenditure committees would have fallen even if CU had come out the other way. But that’s a different point than the one Matt was making.
There’s no reason to think we’d see this explosion of outside money if CU did not start this cascade of events.
Moreover, as more than a few journalists who spend time talking to left-of-center folks besides Bob Kerrey could’ve told Bai, the post-Citizens United world is expressly felicitous to the Right, since rightwing sugar daddies like Adelson or the brothers Koch are not only willing to pour barrels of cash into elections but are ideologically and financially predisposed to do so. MacGillis makes this point at length:
[T]here is a whole other swath of wealthy liberals who realize full well what the stakes are in this fall’s election, even if they are perhaps not as “pumped up” as they were in 2004. But they are holding back from giving as much as they could to the SuperPACs and other outside groups precisely because they are “queasy” about them. That is what I found in speaking to many of these potential donors for a recent article, and it is what Robert Draper found in reporting his own recent Times Magazine piece about the pro-Obama SuperPAC. Put simply, Citizens United put liberals at such a disadvantage not only because the other side has more millionaires and billionaires and friends in high corporate places, but because the left’s millionaires and billionaires have existential qualms about unlimited campaign donations that simply do not exist on the right.
Personally, I find these liberals’ squeamishness to be profoundly annoying. I think it sucks that our elections are now, even more than they already were, largely contests between warring members of the 1 percent. But the best way to change that isn’t for liberals with money (aka power) to take their ball, go home, and rest serenely in their self-righteousness while President Romney places judges on the Supreme Court who’ll make Scalia look like a RINO squish. Changing corrupt systems can’t be accomplished entirely from the inside, true; but unless Soros has plans to don a mask and cape, working from the outside isn’t going to be enough either.
My kvetching aside, you simply cannot argue that Citizens United hasn’t been the catalyst for shifts in the electoral playing field without addressing MacGillis’s point. As he says of Bai, “Only someone trying willfully to rationalize the status quo” would do otherwise.