Thursday, January 21, 2010

Politics: A Gift to the Democrats

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I suspect few of them have realized it yet because they are still in shock over the election of Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts on Tuesday and its effective end of the current health care reform effort, but the Democrats in the United States were handed an enormous gift by the Supreme Court today. If they respond properly, they have a much-needed way to press a "reset" button with the public and get a second chance to advance their agenda.

In a 5-4 decision, the court used a case involving an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary, called Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, to overturn a long series of precedents about campaign finance. Key aspects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, upheld by the court in 2003, were overturned. Corporations and unions will now be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to express support of candidates for political office through advocacy advertising. They will only need to disclose that they are doing so.

The conservative wing of the court, bolstered by Bush appointees Roberts and Alito (joining Bush Sr. appointee Thomas and Reagan appointees Scalia and Kennedy), ruled that it was a violation of the first amendment to limit corporate speech during an election, which meant that corporations should be able to spend money like any individual. In doing so, they equated not only money with speech (a year ago, I was complaining about the similar equation of money and freedom on this blog), but also corporations with individual citizens.

That's where the political opening was created. Regardless of what the law currently states, people intuitively understand that corporations are not really equal to people. Large corporations, in particular, have financial advantages that even rich individuals cannot match. The argument Republicans have chosen to voice, that the court ruling "helps the middle class" by helping to lessen the impact of rich individuals (read "elites") is absurd on its face--how exactly do these Republicans think those rich individuals got their money in the first place? People intuitively understand that the court ruling reinforces the ability of moneyed interests to influence the political process.

I've argued before on this blog that the first thing that the Obama administration should have done was proceed with bi-partisan campaign finance reform (even if the extent of bi-partisanship was John McCain, though I think others would have followed) before pursuing progressive agenda items like health care reform. With health care reform in need of re-thinking with the loss of a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, even if it isn't completely dead, this is an opportunity to try a completely different set of tactics.

While John McCain has been less strident in his criticism of the court decision than the Democrats, he has expressed "disappointment." Furthermore, McCain has already met with newly-elected Massachusetts senator Brown and talked about how both are interested in solving problems. It's time for Obama to invite these two men--McCain, his former opponent and the longest-standing advocate for campaign finance reform, and Brown, who better than any other individual at this juncture encapsulates the feelings (not just anger) of independent voters--to the White House and figure out how they can work together on campaign finance reform measures that will hold up to court scrutiny. I think the two Republicans will do it--McCain feels too strongly about campaign finance reform to say "no" even if his party wants him to, and Brown would have the opportunity to prove to his electorate that he was the kind of problem-solver that he claimed to be.

If they agreed and then came up with interesting ideas, it probably would even be a true bi-partisan effort, with other Republicans supporting the effort and some Democrats not doing so. That would change the mood in Washington, and then who knows what could happen. If McCain and Brown refused, then the Democrats would at least have identified a wedge issue that will resonate with independents--"the Republicans don't even want to do anything to prevent corporations from buying elections."

Considering how the administration has behaved in its first year, though, they probably won't do anything with the gift they have just been handed. Like the super-majority the Democrats once had in the Senate, it will likely go to waste.

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