Citizens United: GOP Wet Dream Turns Into Trump Nightmare

One important element of the years during which Barack Obama was President will be the historical conservative overreach that could very well lead to the collapse of the national-level Republican Party. And it all started with a Supreme Court case that proved to be rat poison that Republicans eagerly swallowed, thinking it was sugar.trump

The Supreme Court ruling is of course, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which declared in 2010 that loosely associated groups of people (read: the rich and/or businesses) collectively have the same free speech rights as individuals. They also decided that not-for-profit entities are constitutionally allowed to collect and spend as much money as they want for political purposes, so long as they don’t “coordinate” those efforts with the candidates that they support.

For a bunch of alleged constitutional literalists, the decision was gibberish—the conservatives on the court granted First Amendment rights to corporations, a legal hypothesis never mentioned by the Founders nor the Constitution. In fact, the 200 or so U.S. corporations that existed by 1800 were chartered by the states and forbidden from participating in politics. Not only were they forbidden,if they did engage in any activities deemed contrary to that rule of law, they could have immediately lost their charter to do business in or with the United States forever.

But the conservative Supreme Court Justices made up a completly new, partisan, and evidence-free history, reading into the Constitution what they wanted to find rather than the stated intentions of the founders. And what they “decided” was that money is speech (it’s not, it’s property) and corporations are people (they’re not, they’re business entities), with the same constitutional rights of free expression as any human. I’m not kidding.

The obvious intent of the conservative Justices was to benefit wealthy individuals and their companies, which can now anonymously dump unlimited cash into political organizations known as super PACs, 501(c)4s and 527s, with only one restriction: The groups can’t coordinate its efforts with the campaign nor candidate it supports. So an advertisement that said “Vote for Bill” and was paid for by a cash-laden outside entity was OK, so long as it didn’t ask for Bill’s permission, nor coordinate it with any candidate events unless it is without the candidates prior knowledge. Of course “coordination” is virtually impossible to prove so it’s a distinction not seriously geared to adherence by design.

Predictably, following the ruling, most conservatives were beside themselves with joy, considering that their partners in crime on the Supreme Court—by mangling the Constitution beyond recognition—had just delivered a profound advantage to the Republican Party.

The decision “struck a blow for the First Amendment,’’ said Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. “The floodgates for money will obviously be opened by the court’s decision,’’ said Ed Rollins, a prominent Republican political consultant.

But for all their excited panting and drooling at the prospect of wealthy donors vs the typical Democrat base of poor, minority and disadvantaged, Republicans failed to consider one important fact: Not all millionaires and billionaires support the same things.

  • Establishment Republicans emphasis is on lower taxes for the wealthy and decreased government regulation.
  • Evangelical conservatives want to end abortion, gay marriage and force Christianity into schools.
  • Then there are those focused on single issues—fossil fuels development, support of Israel, tearing down consumer financial protections, etc.

With the ruling of Citizens United, the myriad moneyed interests could each become major factions in the political process by writing a check, thereby forcing candidates to make pilgrimages to kiss the rings of billionaires. GOP leaders were totally unaware of the coming consequences in this new political landscape: The party was about to split into well-financed factions and a candidate who otherwise would never consider running for the Republican presidential nomination could be transformed into a contender with a single billionaire’s backing.

The numbers are startling and irrefutable. Before Citizens United, the Republican nomination process was pretty predictable. Candidates would test the waters; only a few would receive enough in contributions to keep their campaigns going; everyone else would quickly drop out. In 2000, for example, out of 12 GOP candidates, seven withdrew before the primaries because they couldn’t raise enough money. Of the remaining five, one—Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire businessman—was largely self-financed, while two others were almost exclusively supported by evangelical and anti-abortion activists. That left only two financially viable candidates, former Texas Governor George W. Bush and Senator John McCain. The result? Only Bush and McCain won any electoral contests. The total amount contributed by political action committees to every candidate—Republican and Democrat—was just $2.8 million for the entire primary season.

With Bush running for re-election in 2004, the next competitive primary season was 2008, and the story was the same. Twelve GOP candidates stepped to the starting line. Four withdrew before the primaries, and three more dropped out in the first month of the election year, all for lack of funds. Another three dropped out soon after for the same reasons. McCain had raised about $54 million by the time he secured the nomination on April 15. And again, PACs contributed very little in the primaries.

Then came 2012, the first primary season after the Citizens United decision, and with it, one of the most ridiculous sights in political history: Republican debates with so many candidates that the stage almost collapsed under their combined weight, even without Chris Christie in the mix. But unlike in the past, no one needed to go hat in hand to hundreds or thousands of potential donors—they just needed backing from one of those not-for-profit entities supported by one or two billionaires who simply liked a particular candidate but had no intention of coordinating its efforts nor receiving any quid pro quo from said candidate.Riiight.

With money being heaped on and around every campaign, no one dropped out before the primaries. Seventeen candidates appeared on at least two Republican primary ballots. Mitt Romney did not secure enough delegates to win the nomination until almost June because so many candidates had the outside money to keep going, and they kept cutting into the former Massachusetts governor’s totals. At least 49 super PACs supported individual candidates, including businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Senator Rick Santorum, etc. , according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Every time Romney seemed on the verge of securing the nomination, someone else supported by a pet billionaire would become the flavor of the week to compete with him.

After its 2012 loss in the general election, the Republican Party came to the erroneous conclusion that its problem had been the primary race had simply drug on too long. So, in a shocking political error, the party decided to shorten its primary schedule so that a single candidate could grab enough delegates to win quickly.

Ironically for the Republicans, the Citizens United decision they once thought would finally give them complete control of the country may instead splinter the party into so many factions that it could implode at the Republican National Convention with two totally unacceptable candidates to the “establishment” of the GOP.

This year, there were once again 17 presidential candidates at the start of the race, and all but a few backed by many millions of dollars from super PACs and other outside groups. Even former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who barely garnered 1 percent in the polls, received $4.5 million in support from outside entities, compared with $1.4 million contributed to him the old-fashioned way—real people giving money. Rick Perry got $15 million in outside backing this time thanks to Citizens United but could only raise $1.4 million in traditional campaign contributions. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received $24 million in independent backing (only $8 million from individual contributions), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got $23 million (compared with $8 million), and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush received $118.7 million (compared with $33.5 million), numbers that led establishment Republicans to deem him the presumptive nominee.

And all that again left the party in a situation in which Republican voters could not coalesce around a single candidate. There were just too many to choose from.

No one came close to a majority in the early polls, meaning a candidate could become the front-runner with a plurality much smaller than historically required. Thus, with the establishment candidates splitting up the support of traditional Republican voters into ever smaller shards, Donald Trump—the only candidate receiving almost no support from independent groups created by Citizens United—is marching toward the nomination. And party leaders seem incapable of understanding, nor able to devise a plan to effectively deal with what’s happened.

Now, with many Republican politicians wailing that a Trump nomination could destroy the party, perhaps someone will realize that the splintering of the GOP is in part traceable to Citizens United.

With the real consequences starting to become apparent and unavoidable, and with the Republican Party bearing the brunt of the decision, perhaps the Democrats should drop their effort to pass laws that would mitigate the court’s ruling.

Instead, perhaps they should wait until the Republicans come knocking on their doors seeking campaign finance reform. And then make them beg like starving dogs for scraps.

Harvey A. Gold