Super PACs and the Next POTUS

This is the age of Citizen’s United. Every major Republican candidate for president left in the race has a not-so-secret billionaire backing him (Romney of course has several), and the usual wave of disgusting, negative ads has grown to tsunami-like proportions thanks to the prevalence of super PACs, which, and it cannot be repeated enough, do not coordinate with the candidates. Considering the state of campaign finance, it is no surprise that President Obama has authorized super PACs to act on his behalf.

Some, especially the president’s supporters, criticize this as an unforgivable betrayal of his firm stance against unlimited corporate financing of elections. But what else is he supposed to do? Campaign with one hand tied behind his back? The super PAC supporting the president, Priorities USA, has only raised $59,000, most of that from a single donor, while Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, already has raised $36.8 million. The game hasn’t changed – campaigns still need to raise tons of money to remain viable – but the rules certainly have. If President Obama insisted on a principled stand, he would have made a profound statement; unfortunately, that statement would have been the folly of taking such a stand against big business and the corruptive effect of mountains of cash.

In the president’s defense, there is a cold logic not only in his decision to engage in the use of super PACs, but to the very notion of super PACS: money is speech. The Supreme Court did not invent a right that did not exist before. Whether you go back to the last landmark campaign finance case, Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s, or cases from the 19th century, the Supreme Court has always considered money as speech and corporations as people. While I believe unlimited infusions of cash into elections are detrimental to democracy, I cannot argue that it is not an example of free speech. If spending money as you see fit is an exercise of your free speech, then setting an arbitrary limit to how much of that money is spent would violate that speech.

Having said that, while everyone, corporation and person alike, has a right to free speech, not all speech is created equal. Our votes can be bought and our voices drowned out by the endless ads and videos flooding every form of media imaginable. A healthy democratic process would allow for various viewpoints to be contested and discussed and a variety of candidates representing different constituencies and ideologies to have a fair chance of being elected and bringing their viewpoints to our government. Corporate candidates change all that. Now the people with money can see to it that the candidates friendliest to them will lead all Americans. I doubt most citizens have much in common with the few capable of spending billions of dollars on electing candidates.

And I have to believe that the candidates themselves are unhappy with this. It is bad enough having to raise the millions of dollars to run for office, but it has to be so much worse to be beholden to donors who virtually paid for their entire campaign, as is the case with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. If their political success is due to the generous support of a rational, self-interested human being who has a reason to prefer them to their opponents, are they really able to act on their own principles and conscience, let alone those of the people they are supposed to serve? People go to ridiculous lengths (example: reality shows) to make money as it is – politicians, the masters of communication and manipulation, would undoubtedly go to even greater lengths to ensure their donors continue to send them a check.

For this reason, we have rightly attempted to turn the tide of financial interest through campaign finance reform. We know the identities of the billionaires supporting the candidates and we can trace the commercials to the groups supporting each candidate. By looking into them we can even get a sense for their agenda. And what one side can do, the other side can, too, as proven by the president’s decision to engage in the super PAC game. Even so, elections can still be corrupted by the constant stream of cash that has now taken center stage in elections. Campaigns were dirty and negative before – super PACs make it easier than ever; politics have become even more nauseating.

It is hard to imagine a campaign finance law that can fit within the framework of Citizen’s United, meaning that the only way to do something about this is a constitutional amendment. Some in Congress have laid the groundwork, and now it is up to us to support their efforts. It won’t happen this year or maybe even by the next midterm elections; it’s not an easy fight to have, but it’s certainly a fight worth having.

 

Kerry Wakely is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.