Flood of Money Corrupts Electoral Politics

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” A California politician named Jesse Unruh said that back in 1966.

There is nothing new about the importance of money in a political campaign. But when you look at the recent primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, and what has been happening this past week in South Carolina, you see that money is no longer just important. It could well be the determining factor in future elections.

A few weeks ago, Newt Gingrich was polling ahead of his rivals in the Iowa primary. Then a few close associates of Mitt Romney created a “super PAC.” After a few million dollars’ worth of virulently anti-Gingrich ads, Newt was effectively out of the race.

As I write this, a Gingrich super PAC with $5 million from a Las Vegas gambling mogul is spending over $3 million on TV hammering away at Romney in South Carolina. Be glad you don’t live there. Three million buys a ton of annoying airtime.

“I am Joe Candidate and I approve this message.” When you see super PAC negative ads, you will never hear that tagline. That’s because the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the 2010 Citizens United case made it possible for corporations, unions, and nonprofit organizations to fund “independent” political action committees, now called super PACS, during a political campaign.

Because they are not contributing directly to a candidate, there is no limit to what they can give. Nor do these super PACs have to reveal in their ads who is really backing them. The ruling was based on the belief — incredible to me — that these entities have free-speech rights just like yours and mine.

So, because others will do their dirty work, candidates will be able to avoid “going negative” against their opponents.

That was certainly significant in Iowa, because voters in the state have a long tradition of punishing politicians who run negative ads. But Romney didn’t have to say, “I approve this message.” Who, me? I had nothing to do with them. Watch Gingrich say the same thing in South Carolina.

And you ain’t seen nothing yet. Hundreds of millions of dollars in super PAC expenditures will be spent by both sides in the upcoming general election, all “independent” of the candidates they prefer. You will see more negative advertising in 2012 than you ever thought possible.

As a result of laws enacted in reaction to the undisclosed contributions that were part of the Watergate scandal, from 1976 until 2008 we had close to a level playing field in terms of money in presidential elections.

But our overall campaign- finance laws changed gradually during that period. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled, correctly I believe, that individuals had a free-speech right to express their independent opinions during a political campaign. What made the system work was that these expenditures really had to be independent. In fact, there were a number of cases where individuals were sent to jail for coordinating their committee activities with actual campaigns. Then came the big game-changer, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

It was a monumentally bad decision, because of the volume of money that can now be contributed and because there is no disclosure as to who is spending the money.

Now that candidates do not have to take responsibility for negative ads against their opponents, those ads are bound to become nastier, less fact-based, and more irresponsible.

We are now much closer to a democracy in which elections can be anonymously bought by special interests with unlimited funds at their disposal.

What can be done to fix the mess created by the Citizens United decision? It will be difficult to pass legislation that does so because of the constitutional basis of the court’s decision. But what we have seen already in the short span of this presidential campaign should give both parties pause. Finding a way to move elections back into the hands of voters ought to be something all Americans and both parties can unite on.

We can also hope that the Supreme Court in future decisions will see that democracy is based on individual freedoms and only people deserve these protections. In the meanwhile, buckle up. What you are about to see on TV this fall will almost certainly be the ugliest presidential campaign in any of our lifetimes.

Originally published 14 Jan 2012 on delawareonline.com