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Why left-wing carping about Citizens United is not reality based

Matt Bai of the New York Times has written an excellent article which shows that most of what we’ve been told by the left about the alleged evils wrought by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United decision doesn’t hold up. For example, Bai disputes the common complaint that Citizens United unleashed a torrent of money from businesses and the multimillionaires who run them, and as a result we are now seeing the corporate takeover of American politics:

As a matter of political strategy, this is a useful story to tell, appealing to liberals and independent voters who aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the administration but who are concerned about societal inequality, which is why President Obama has made it a rallying cry almost from the moment the Citizens United ruling was made. But if you’re trying to understand what’s really going on with politics and money, the accepted narrative around Citizens United is, at best, overly simplistic. And in some respects, it’s just plain wrong.

For one thing, “zillionaires were no less able to write fat checks four years ago than they are today.” And “while corporations can now give money for specific purposes that were prohibited before, it seems they aren’t, or at least not at a level that accounts for anything like the sudden influx of money into the system.” Indeed, Bai cites evidence that not a single Fortune 100 company contributed to a candidate’s super PAC during this year’s Republican primaries. Moreover, of the $96 million or more raised by these super PACs, only about 13 percent came from privately held corporations, and less than 1 percent came from publicly traded corporations.

Why, then, has total outside spending, as measured through March 8 of every election season, exploded after the Citizens United decision, reaching about $15.9 million in 2010 (compared with $1.8 million in the previous midterm cycle) and $88 million this year (compared with $37.5 million at the same point in 2008)? Actually, says Bai, such spending hasn’t really exploded since Citizens United:

The level of outside money increased 164 percent from 2004 to 2008. Then it rose 135 percent from 2008 to 2012. In other words, while the sheer amount of dollars seems considerably more ominous after Citizens United, the percentage of change from one presidential election to the next has remained pretty consistent since the passage of McCain-Feingold. And this suggests that the rising amount of outside money was probably bound to reach ever more staggering levels with or without Citizens United.

Moreover, the anti-Citizens United narrative fails to take into account the political environment:

2010 and 2012 were the first election cycles since the enactment of McCain-Feingold in which a Democrat occupied the White House. Rich conservatives weren’t inspired to invest their fortunes in 2004, when Bush ran for the second time while waging an unpopular war, or in 2008, when they were forced to endure the nomination of McCain. But now there’s a president and a legislative agenda they bitterly despise (much as Soros and his friends saw the Bush presidency as an existential threat to the country), so it’s not surprising that outside spending by Republicans in 2010 and 2012 would dwarf everything that came before. What we are seeing — what we almost certainly would have seen even without the court’s ruling in Citizens United — is the full force of conservative wealth in America, mobilized by a common enemy for the first time since the fall of party monopolies.

Taking this into account, Bai finds little reason to believe that the current system confers an advantage on Republicans per se. Rather, it confers an advantage on the out-of-power party, which can leverage outrage over the in-power party into highly successful fundraising. Considering the other advantages possessed by incumbents, and because intensity should matter, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Bai also questions, quite sensibly, whether a fundraising advantage translates into a political advantage in a presidential campaign where both sides raise huge amounts of money. Carter Eskew, the longtime Democratic operative whose clients have included Al Gore in 2000, told Bai that presidential candidates need $500 million for advertising and that anything beyond that is probably overkill.

In this year’s presidential campaign, both sides will have more than enough money to deliver their respective messages. Thus, voters will have an abundance of information on which to base their decision, with neither candidate having a meaningful financial advantage. That’s how it should be. This doesn’t mean the voters will choose wisely, but no system can guarantee that.

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