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Citizens United decision will move governance to the right

Prominent Washington, D.C., attorney Edward Bennett Williams, now deceased, was reported to have said, “In Washington, we burn a witch every month … it is important to not be that witch!” Williams was referring to avoiding the public spotlight associated with scandals aired through highly publicized congressional hearings or hard hitting investigative reporting. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, Williams could have been referring to avoiding the spotlight associated with sticking to progressive convictions. The impact of the Citizens United decision will create a new challenge for public officials, who may govern by staying out of the spotlight and, thereby, avoid being lashed to the stake.
The Citizens United decision — a recent case decided by the Robert’s Supreme Court holding that political funding by corporations cannot be limited under the First Amendment — has unleashed corporate money in elections. While many factors influence elections, money is certainly very significant. According to recent reports, election funding by special interest groups this year is up over 40 percent from 2008 with nearly $257 million being spent, much of it from anonymous corporate donors.

The money coming from corporations is primarily funding attack ads against progressive candidates. These attacks are largely being done for the benefit of conservative candidates for the U.S. Senate. However, whether current Republican candidates like Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Ken Buck (Colorado) or Joe Miller (Alaska) win or lose, the Senate will be tacking to the right under the weight of these largely secret corporate dollars.

Democratic candidates tacking to the right
While a number of the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates are currently employing populist messages, they also have been forced to fly a more conservative flag to mitigate against the attacks. In Kentucky, Democratic candidate Jack Conway has openly questioned the spending of stimulus money. In West Virginia, Democratic candidate Joe Manchin has attacked cap and trade legislation. In Colorado, Democratic candidate Michael Bennett’s efforts to work “across the aisle” by voting 50 times with Republicans in less than two years has been praised. Many have said that O’Donnell, Angle, Paul, Miller and Buck do not reflect their fathers’ Republican Party. Make no mistake that, with a few exceptions like Mark Dayton, Democrats are putting survival ahead of conviction and turning away from the politics personified by Eugene McCarthy, Don Fraser, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale.
If Republicans win control of either the House of Representatives or the Senate, the historic efforts to burn Democratic witches through congressional hearings designed to unearth “scandal” will most certainly occur. The purpose of such public spectacles is to move public opinion and influence the voting pattern of members of Congress. However, the impact of Citizens United on future governance creates a more daunting problem. It is likely that those facing election in 2012 will avoid becoming the “witch” targeted by corporate money interests who have now shown an ability to aggressively attack candidates.

A new political consideration
While elected officials have always weighed the conflicting interests of their constituencies, they now must consider whether a vote will result in an effort to dethrone them by millions of corporate dollars raised outside their own state. For example, Sen. Olympia Snowe, characterized as a moderate Republican from Maine, is up for re-election in 2012. Can anyone really expect Snowe to forge compromises with Democrats and then become the target for unfettered corporate monetary interests to shoot at?

Sen. Jim Webb, the thoughtful Democrat from Virginia who won by less than 1 percent of the vote, also faces re-election in 2012. It is hardly surprising that he recently recommended that the governor of Virginia commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday. Sen. Jon Tester, the energetic Democratic senator from Montana, is also facing election in 2012. He won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Tester is already emphasizing largely local issues (wolf killing, border security with Canada) and cannot be expected to become the next conviction-laden Mr. Smith (Goes to Washington), which would invite millions of corporate dollars unleashed by the Citizens United decision to be targeted against him.
Members of Congress will soon be joined by an entirely new class of elected officials. Some of these new representatives will be extremely conservative owing their election success, in part, to the Citizens United decision. Others will have narrowly survived an assault of millions of dollars by corporations and, while breaking away from the stake, will have certainly been singed by the fire. The result of Citizens United, and the inherent intimidation that millions of corporate dollars creates, will be a more contrite and conservative Congress no matter who wins on Tuesday.

Robert Moilanen is a Minneapolis attorney who formerly served as Special Assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/29/2010 - 08:17 am.

    Please don’t forget Paul Wellstone among the finest of our progressive statesmen.

    And Mark Dayton in the spirit of PAUL WELLSTONE, is a rare exception and gives hope still, for those who may not have equal representation in this land shredding its former greatness by the use and abuse of money, power and greed.

    Even the polls are beginning to show Minnesota taking back its grass roots populism.

    Mark Dayton follows in the footsteps of one of the greatest populists this state had the honor of calling their own…Paul Wellstone; his own words not to be forgotten:

    “I think this is a good example of the commercial calculus and ties taking precedence over everything else. It’s sort of like the almighty dollar is triumphing over a lot of the other values we have as a nation.” P.W.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/29/2010 - 09:43 am.

    A good article, and mirrors almost exactly one I wrote in Minnpost on Aug 24 on the same subject.

    Certainly a subject worthy of a reprise and more attention Mollanen.

    If you are a true capitalist (especially one who invests in the stock market), you should be additionally offended by the fact that those making these contributions are doing it unilaterally WITH SHAREHOLDER MONEY! It should not be theirs to spend. But then, we now expect SCOTUS decisions to be neither fair or unbiased.

  3. Submitted by Robert Langford on 10/29/2010 - 11:26 am.

    I am offended by the idea that Citizens allows corporations to use pre-tax money for politial statement. and expense the payment as a business expense. As a result their contributions are deductible, which nets out to lower taxes for them, and higher taxes for me! As an individual, I have limited, and usually no deductiblity for political contributions. This should be the first change made by the Congress in the Post-Citizens era. I suspect that the Court will ultimately say that any requirement for disclosure is a violation of the 1st Amendment and in the end, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and ol whats his name will succeed in their concerted effort to turn our great Country over to Rupert Murdoch and any other rich non-Americans who will pay their ransom.

  4. Submitted by Jim Roth on 10/29/2010 - 01:06 pm.

    I think the Citizens United decision is wrong-headed and an unmitigated disaster as reflected in the flood on anonymous advertising in the current campaigns. Part of the Bush legacy which keeps on giving. And the Right-wingers criticize President Obama for not overcoming all of the wrongs inflicted by their champion. Who created these deficits– tax cuts for the wealhty and two expensive wars. As Cheney said when question by Treasury Secretary O’Neill about the wisdom of the tax cuts, “They’re our due.” (What’s wrong with this picture?) Oh well, I guess money talks and will fix everything at least for the moneyed elite and their panderers.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/29/2010 - 08:56 pm.

    Money without transparency is trouble. We need to know who has been bought by whom.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/29/2010 - 11:31 pm.

    “Money without transparency is trouble. We need to know who has been bought by whom.”

    I agree completely, Richard. Its the exact reason Tom Horner should disclose his client list. I’m not sure why you don’t think the idea applies in that case.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/30/2010 - 07:59 pm.

    My good friend Dan,

    Who funds the DFL and GOP campaigns?
    Dayton has spent $4.2 million, nearly twice as much as Tom Emmer ($2.7 million) and four times as much as Tom Horner (1.2 million).

    On the flip side, two major pro-business interest groups, MN Forward and Minnesota’s Future, have collected $4.1 million and supporting Emmer.

    For all your negative rhetoric about Horner. ‘Their’ money certainly hasn’t shown up in Mr. Horner’s fund raising numbers.

    I would think that if you truly cared about special interest money and it’s influence on candidates and good governance. Perhaps you would follow the money. As an litigator, you should have learned that lesson early in your career.

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