Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Gingrich and Citizens United

Newt Gingrich has complained mightily about pro-Romney SuperPACs paying for anti-Gingrich ads. In a recent Fox News interview, Gingrich said, "I think that people ultimately don’t want to have a candidate that tries to buy the presidency with attack ads." He's also complained that the ads are inaccurate, most memorably in early January on CBS, when he said Romney was "somebody who will lie to you to get to be president, will lie to you when they are president.” Gingrich complained about the ads in several of the endless Republican debates, as he did here, in early January:

(As several observers noted, Romney lied here – he said he hadn't seen the ads, then went on to describe one and defend its accuracy.)

To anyone familiar with Gingrich's career, his complaints about someone else's lies and unfair attacks are laughably hypocritical. The same goes for his complaints about 'buying the presidency,' not only for his long-standing demonization of regulation and government in general, but because of his specific cheerleading for the Citizens United decision that made the SuperPAC attacks possible.

On 1/21/10, the same day the Citizens United decision was issued, Gingrich was invited to appear on NPR to argue the "pro" side (Fred Wertheimer argued the "con" side). Gingrich wound up giving one of my favorite bullshitting performances of all-time on the network. Follow the link to hear the whole thing, but here's the best part, when host Melissa Block pushed back on one of Gingrich's claims (emphasis mine):

BLOCK: You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. I'm curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including MoveOn.org, by very, very rich people.

Now, all I'm saying is you as a citizen ought to the right to complain about your incumbent congressman, or your incumbent senator, or your incumbent president - and you should not be constrained by the government, you should not risk criminal proceedings. And that's what the Founding Fathers wrote. That's why the First Amendment has the right of free speech and it has been I think stunningly perverted by the kind of regulations we've had over the last 30 years, and they've been profoundly wrong.

BLOCK: You're saying that this ruling affects the average citizen expressing his or her voice, as opposed to corporations being allowed to spend freely.

Mr. GINGRICH: I'm saying that it allows you to have a middle-class candidate go out and find allies and supporters who are able to help them match the rich. And able to help them match the incumbent. Remember, incumbents run with millions of dollars in congressional staff, congressional franking, congressional travel. And they have all the advantages of being able to issue statements from their incumbent office. And the challenger - the person out there who's the citizen who's rebelling, who wants to change things - is at an enormous disadvantage in taking on incumbents.

This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich.

It's hilarious to hear Gingrich search for words and come up with "allies and supporters" to avoid saying, "corporations." Yes, as we all predicted back then and have seen since, Citizens United allows corporations to fund their true loves, "middle-class candidates"… who doubtlessly will not beholden to those corporate interests. Never mind that many corporations oppose any form of taxation or support for the social contract, and have been eager participants the short-sighted conservative war on the middle class. Never mind that none of the presidential candidates can credibly be called "middle class" (and they're a rare breed in Congress, as well). Clearly, allowing mighty corporations unfettered spending is a victory for the little guy. Orwell would have a field day with this one.

Blue Gal makes another key point about why Gingrich deserves no sympathy – Newt and Callista Gingrich have appeared in Citizens United videos and have been paid by the company. (Gingrich, or NPR, really should have mentioned that during his appearance.)

In any case, Newt is now whining about a horrible change to our political system that he championed. He probably just assumed the big money boys would always back him. Karma's a bitch.

Citizens United has helped Gingrich somewhat as well as hurt him, since he's received backing from at least one wealthy donor. But so far, Romney seems to have a much larger war chest and more backers in the run-up to Super Tuesday.

I have to admit, I'm finding the karmic retribution aspect of the Republican primary season and all the in-fighting highly entertaining. In contrast, Gingrich's blatant racial pandering is disturbing. (I might write more on this later, but Chauncey DeVega has the subject well-covered.) However, Gingrich hasn't really turned people into racists – instead, he's pandering to pre-existing racist tendencies, and thus exposing an ugly, core element of the Republican Party's electoral strategy since Nixon. The danger is that ugliness may grow, and some members of the mainstream press are far too hesitant to call Gingrich out or at least pose the question. (Romney is more subtle if no less despicable with his similar, central strategy of continually attacking Obama as un-American.) While I'd like to see reliable poll numbers on such matters, I suspect that Gingrich's racial pandering will continue to help him with the conservative base, but would hurt him in a general election (and could not be entirely washed away).

Newt Gingrich is an extremely nasty man, and that's in fact his appeal to the base – they fully believe he will be a raging asshole to the people they've convinced themselves they hate. He hasn't been alone in the mud-flinging, though – at this point, conservatives have thrown to the wayside Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" – thou shalt not speak ill of a Republican. For all that, viciousness may be the one territory where Newt Gingrich can justifiably claim to be a talented visionary. As John Cole (and others) have noted:

The best argument for hoping Gingrich stays close in the race is the guy is just ruthless and will have no problem gutting any of the other candidates if he thinks it will be advantageous to him at that VERY minute.

It's just his nature. Plus, speaking of karma, it would be only justice if Gingrich, Romney and the rest of their hubristic, nihilistic gang would do to the Republican Party what the Republican Party has been doing to America for decades.


Anonymous said...

Gingrich's primary backer (Adelstein, I think?) was not enabled or empowered by the Citizens United ruling; CU addressed the role of corporations in financing elections. It is a good example of the need for comprehensive election financing reform, though.

Batocchio said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I've seen some dispute over that, and I'm not clear on some wrinkles of campaign law. For example, this NYT article ties the Citizens United decision to Sheldon Adelson and SuperPACs. Floyd Abrams, "who represented Senator Mitch McConnell in the Citizens United case," has challenged the NYT's characterization. So far, the best write-up I've found is this piece by Rick Hasen, who's written a fair amount on election law, and puts Abrams' objections into larger context. Hasen's conclusion is: "Bottom line: Citizens United has led, indirectly but surely, to the emergence of Super PACs. But it is up to Congress, not the Supreme Court, to fix the disclosure problems with Super PACs." So if the argument is that Citizens United didn't specifically and solely lead to the Sheldon Adelson situation, that's fair, and it would be more accurate to say that it and a few other court decisions and laws have contributed to the overall mess. Regardless, as you say, it's a good example of the need for comprehensive election financing reform.

(Feel free to pass on any other good pieces on this stuff.)

There seem to be several issues: 1) donation limits (if any) for contributions to candidates, PACs and other entities, and how those might differ, 2) who can make such donations, 3) the tax and legal status of such groups, 4) whether a group must engage in general issue advocacy or can engage in electioneering (direct advocacy for or against a candidate), and 5) disclosure requirements, not only of the group paying for an ad, but a group's donors. (Republican senators blocked a disclosure law about donors.)

While there are some legitimate First Amendment concerns as well as many bad faith arguments against campaign finance reform, personally, I'm partial to public funding of elections. I'm also grateful that Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart have been doing such great segments on this stuff, which can get highly technical and confusing. Lastly, speaking of comedy, it's hard to find something more darkly comic than this passage from the Citizens United syllabus:

"...this Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy."