March 5 (Bloomberg) -- This may come to be known as the Samuel Alito election.
The U.S. presidential contest is predominately about Barack Obama’s stewardship of the economy and the political-cultural divide in the Republican Party. It’s also about the huge sums of money sloshing around, after Justice Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court and provided the swing vote in the 2010 Citizens United case.
Supporters claimed that allowing unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions would create a more educated and enthused electorate, and enable the insurgent party to more effectively make its case.
Instead, the Republican primary contest has produced the most negative, mean campaign since the Watergate scandal brought about campaign-finance reform four decades ago. Turnout is mediocre and the appeal of the Republican brand has plummeted.
Those who backed the Supreme Court’s decision contend that Citizens United isn’t responsible for the proliferation of so-called super-PACS with multimillion-dollar contributors such as the Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson.
That is only true technically.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned precedents and ruled that corporate money could be used for “independent” efforts to promote political candidates. It was a 5-to-4 decision.
Later, an appellate court, citing the high court case, found that wealthy individuals could give unlimited sums to super-PACS, which aren’t permitted to coordinate their actions with candidates they support.
There had been similar efforts in earlier campaigns: In 2004, a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, funded largely by rich Texans, assailed the military record of the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam War hero; the billionaire George Soros was a prime funder for independent efforts against President George W. Bush. The lax Federal Election Commission later found such efforts illegal and fined the organizations.
What about Rick Perry, Citizens United defenders ask? The Texas governor had plenty of money and bombed. What that demonstrates is that no matter how much money he has, a candidate with a room-temperature political I.Q. is doomed.
For less-challenged candidates, money is still the mother’s milk of politics. Obama, once a campaign-finance reformer, is making up for lost time. He has encouraged top White House aides and certain Cabinet members to help his super-PAC shake money from rich contributors. His campaign manager, Jim Messina, assured New York fat cats that the president had no intention of politicking against Wall Street.
The Obama campaign, which through the end of January had raised more than twice as much as the leading Republican, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, insisted that the Republican super-PACS gave the president no choice; they made him do it.
On the Republican side, Adelson, with his family, has given more than $11 million to a super-PAC backing Newt Gingrich, keeping the dying campaign alive. The billionaire casino czar is under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for his interests in China. He has asked other candidates seeking money for a commitment to help Israel obliterate any Iranian nuclear facilities.
Gingrich and the funder of his “independent” super-PAC huddled in Las Vegas last month; neither has disclosed what they talked about.
The Romney super-PAC, which so far has spent more than all the other independent groups combined, including those supporting the president, is run by close political and personal associates; the candidate has urged his campaign aides to help this “independent” effort.
Of the 30,146 television spots broadcast by the Romney group, Restore Our Future, 29,642 were negative, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks and monitors political television advertising. In Ohio, Romney’s backers have put up three commercials, two attacking Rick Santorum as a crypto-left winger and one praising Romney for helping a colleague find a missing child. Over the past two weeks, the negative ads have run 2,019 times; the positive one, 154 times.
These figures paint a somewhat distorted picture as some legitimate comparison ads are classified as negative; and some of the critical ones are very legitimate: commercials pointing out the lavish consulting fees paid to Gingrich by Freddie Mac, or those drawing attention to Romney’s Massachusetts health-care measure, a precursor of Obama’s national initiative.
Still, much of the advertising is trashy and cheap, the sort of stuff that turns off voters.
And that is what is happening. The Republican electorate, desperate to get rid of Obama, was thought to have all the intensity and energy in 2012, much like the Democrats four years earlier.
Yet in the first batch of primaries, turnout overall hasn’t increased from 2008, supposedly a doldrums year, though there are no competing Democratic contestants this time.
And the Republican brand, as measured by the favorability or positive ratings in almost every major poll, is continuously sinking to its lowest level in almost 40 years.
That’s what cash-rich politics often produces; a race to the bottom, not a bigger marketplace to showcase ideas. It’s hard to find a Republican who argues that voters have been treated to an inspiring and informative debate; privately, some are beginning to doubt the wisdom of Citizens United and the unleashing of super-PACS.
It’s only going to get nastier, dirtier, this autumn when so-called 501(c)(4) groups, which can accept secret and unlimited corporate and labor-union funds, kick in.
Because of Alito and his majority, the courts aren’t a recourse. The only mild palliative might be to pressure Congress to pass the Disclose Act, which would end the secrecy of big donations and require super-PACS to list top donors in ads.
Even something that mild is a slog in this Congress. The only shot may be if Senator John McCain of Arizona, disgusted with the havoc the court decision has wreaked on campaign-finance laws, puts on his reformer hat and shames his Senate colleagues to pass this measure.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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