E.J. Dionne on Campaign Finance as Class Warfare

E.J. Dionne was in high dudgeon at the Washington Post this morning over Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s January 2010 campaign finance decision that ever since has driven the Left into fits of apoplexy. Taking his cue from Obama’s infamous State-of-the-Union condemnation of the Court shortly after the decision came down, plus the class warfare meme at the core of Obama’s reelection campaign, Dionne attacks not only the Court’s wisdom but its motives:

A more troubling interpretation [than “naiveté”] is that a conservative majority knew exactly what it was doing: that it set out to remake our political system by fiat in order to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy. Seen this way, Citizens United was an attempt by five justices to push future electoral outcomes in a direction that would entrench their approach to governance.

Indeed, the Court’s decision “should be seen as part of a larger initiative by moneyed conservatives to rig the electoral system against their opponents,” Dionne continues. Pointing to recent state legislation aimed at ensuring electoral integrity, such as voter ID laws, he charges that “conservatives are strengthening the hand of the rich at one end of the system and weakening the voting power of the poor at the other.”

Reading this screed you’d think that the moneyed classes, including corporations, were all on the Right. Yet as the Post itself reported last fall, “despite frosty relations with the titans of Wall Street, President Obama has still managed to raise far more money this year from the financial and banking sector than Mitt Romney or any other Republican presidential candidate.” Indeed, “Obama has outdone Romney on his own turf, collecting $76,600 from Bain Capital employees through September – and he needed only three donors to do it.”

So let’s get that white-hat/black-hat silliness out of the way and turn to the charge that the Court “set out to remake our political system by fiat.” The charge, if you read the majority’s opinion, is preposterous on its face. Only Justice Stevens has clung to the idea that money is not speech. (Want proof that it is? How much speech have you heard from the presidential campaign of former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who accepts no contributions over $100?) Well if money is speech, then the First Amendment tells us, straightforwardly, that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.”

Regrettably, despite that simple imperative, the Court has allowed numerous restrictions on the contributions side of the campaign finance ledger. But in Citizens United it opened the door to those who speak through their corporations or unions (the Left’s outrage is directed only to the corporations side of the decision, of course), provided the spending is not coordinated with the candidate. Thus, far from having torn down “a century’s worth of law” – Dionne alludes to the 1907 Tillman Act, which banned corporations from giving directly to candidates – Citizens United simply repealed a provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that prohibited corporate and union expenditures on independent, non-candidate coordinated campaigns.

But Dionne’s confusion doesn’t end there. Like almost every other Leftist, he attributes the rise of super PACs, his main target, to the decision in Citizens United. But it was the March 2010 DC Circuit’s decision in Speech Now v. FEC that brought about those entities. And almost all super PACs are funded by individuals, not corporations or unions. What Speech Now did was lift the ban on individual contributions of more than $5,000 when individuals get together to speak through Political Action Committees that are independent of candidates.

Dionne abhors those PACs, of course. So do the candidates, because they have no control over what “their” PACs say. (“Save me from my friends!”) Far better it would be if contributors were able to give directly to a candidate’s campaign. This is a big country, with over 300 million people and millions of corporations and unions. Are we really to believe, with so many potential contributors, that candidates for federal office would be easily bought and sold if that were allowed? Well in states with few campaign finance restrictions for state offices – where the number of potential contributors is substantially smaller – the evidence simply does not support the wild charges of corruption that so animate the Dionnes of the world. But what is evidence when your real agenda is class warfare?