21 January 2016

Six years later, Citizens United is still no disaster


What an amazing situation is unfolding as we pass the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I’m reminded of this by an email from a progressive group called Public Citizen, which wants to overturn Citizens United with a Constitutional amendment. Its alert says that the legislature in New York is but one senator away from calling precisely for overturning the high court ruling that cleared the way for big money to come into politics in a big way.

That was the decision that the New York Times, in an editorial, described as “disastrous” and a “blow to democracy” and warned had “paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.” The Left has spent the whole six years of the Citizens United era warning that our democracy is being endangered by “dark money.”

Yet the real effect of Citizens United appears to be that every week another billionaire who sank millions into a candidacy wakes up to discover that votes are hard to buy. Just the other day, Charles Koch, whose political and policy organizations employ something like 1,200 persons across the country and may marshal a billion dollars for political causes, was by quoted by Politico as bemoaning his lack of influence in the 2016 political race.

Imagine how Paul Singer must feel. He’s the so-called “mega-donor” who announced in October that he was backing Senator Marco Rubio. “In a field full of promise, but also of risk for the party, Senator Rubio is the strongest choice,” he wrote at the time. Since then, the celebrated senator — I’m an admirer of both Rubio and Singer (the latter was once an investor in the print edition of the New York Sun) — is still far back, tied for third with Jeb Bush.

Nor has the Nevada-based gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson managed to redeem the Times’ prediction that Citizens United would destroy democracy. He has reportedly given financial backing not only to Rubio but to the Senator Lindsay Graham, who, I’m among those who regret, failed to gain traction and dropped out. The other day he shrugged and resorted to what I like to call the Sulzberger strategy — he bought a newspaper.

Then there are the left-of-center billionaires, like Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg. The Sage of Omaha has been backing Hillary Clinton — only to watch her be out-polled by a threadbare socialist from Burlington, Vermont, who’s startled her with his fund-raising. Only 17 percent of donors to the former First Lady were from small donors, the Nation magazine reported after the third quarter 2015 results. What a contrast to Sanders, 75 percent of whose backers were penny-ante participants.

Bloomberg has tried a different strategy, focusing on a campaign to restrict the Bill of Rights. He’s one of the few mega-types to choose such a strategy, which in his case focuses on narrowing the scope of the Second Amendment, which the great jurist St. George Tucker called the palladium of our liberty. Yet despite all the millions the ex-mayor has sunk into his Bill of Rights abatement effort, he can’t get even background checks through the Congress.

Which brings me back to the New York State senate. If it finally does endorse a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, Public Citizen reminds, it would become the 17th state to do so. In other words, after six years of struggle, only 16 states have swung behind the idea of restricting the First Amendment to the degree that Citizens United would be overturned. That’s fewer than half of the 38 states that would have to ratify a constitutional amendment.

My guess is that this reflects some of the truths of America. The vast electorate is smarter than any individual. It knows that Citizen’s United was about a government effort to block, in the middle of an election season, the airing of a film critical of one of the candidates, Hillary Clinton. They like their Bill of Rights. They are not scared of big money. They know the billionaires don’t agree with one another — and can cancel each other out. Voters know they’ve got the last word.

Seth Lipsky is editor of the New York Sun.