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.