By David K. Shipler
Here’s a surprise: So far, super PACS have actually enhanced the political debate. They have used big money to inform voters about the checkered pasts of Newt Gingrich in politics and Mitt Romney in business, prompting mainstream news media to focus on legitimate issues that had received scant attention.
This is the first, not-so-bad impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) granting First Amendment rights to corporations, unions, and other groups. The negative effects may be felt in the months ahead, but for now it is easy to see why the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief supporting this outcome.
It argued that the federal law, which limited independent political spending that did not go directly to candidates, “permits the suppression of core political speech.” Five conservative justices agreed, freeing corporations—or super PACs not run by candidates—to spend at will to promote their views. The ruling left intact the restrictions on direct campaign contributions.
Although President Obama used his 2010 State of the Union address to excoriate the Supreme Court for the decision, he has already benefited from it. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests,” he declared with six justices seated before him. “They should be decided by the American people.” Here, here.
But who can deny the head start Obama has now been given, by a wealthy pro-Gingrich donor, in blasting Romney as ruthlessly eager to fire workers and shut down businesses? This line, with a Republican imprimatur, is bound to be picked up by Obama ads during the general election, and Democratic operatives are already gloating.
If you’re a First Amendment purist, you have to enjoy all this fiery argument, which respects the venerable concept that the answer to speech is more speech, not suppression. To state the obvious, however, your speech is effectively suppressed if you don’t have money. In the expensive world of modern campaigns, money buys speech and—the Court believes—is equated with speech. So, a playing field that has long been tilted is being tipped even more severely, even in a time when wealth and power are resented with special acrimony.
How much will all this freely flowing money contribute to intelligent debate? Not much unless mainstream news media pick up on the accusations and report on them with thorough responsibility. Commercials are always caricatures, whether of a car or a candidate. Political ads in particular are full of lies, almost as many as the candidates’ speeches. The more saturated the airwaves become, the harder for voters to cull untruths from facts. A good reality check is at the Web site of FactCheck.org, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s effort to scrutinize political propaganda.
The early impact of the Super PACs appears mixed. The pro-Romney PAC, Restore Our Future, is credited with driving Gingrich down in Iowa by airing merciless ads detailing his supposed misdeeds—his “baggage,” as one commercial states.
It opens with the smiling face of Obama, and a woman’s voice: “Know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich’s baggage.” There is Newt, standing in front of an airport carousel labeled, “Political Baggage Claim.” Suitcases tumble out, one of them labeled “Freddie Mac,” which the narrator claims paid Gingrich $30,000 an hour (it was a mere $25,000 to $30,000 a month, says FactCheck.org).
It claims that he and Nancy Pelosi co-sponsored a bill funding a U.N. program “supporting China’s brutal ‘one child’ policy,” but FactCheck found that the measure, which didn’t pass, “specifically prohibited the use of funds for ‘involuntary sterilization or abortion,’ or ‘the coercion of any person to accept family planning services.’” The ad’s other claims are accurate, including his fine of $300,000 by the Republican House for ethics violations and his joint appearance with Nancy Pelosi to urge action on global warming. The conservative National Review is quoted as denouncing him: “His weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas made him a poor Speaker of the House.” The announcer concludes, “Newt Gingrich: too much baggage.” In one month, Gingrich dropped from the top of the Iowa polls, at 25 percent, to fourth place in the caucus, with 13 percent.
To get even, Gingrich’s super PAC, Winning Our Future, used a $5 million contribution from a casino owner, Sheldon Adelson, to launch a devastating short film about Romney’s business exploits. Clipped into an ad, it labels Romney a corporate raider who put people out of work as his Bain Capital took over companies that laid off middle Americans, a few of whom, unidentified, tell their poignant stories of hardship and resentment. “I feel that is the man who destroyed us,” one elderly woman says on camera. “More ruthless than Wall Street,” the narrator concludes.
The film contains factual errors and distortions, according to a Bloomberg investigation, and it didn’t seem to make much of a dent in New Hampshire, where Romney ended up with 40 percent of the vote. But it stimulated extensive press coverage of his business ventures.
The New York Times ran a lead editorial calling him “a buyer of flailing companies who squeezed out the inefficiencies (often known as employees) and then sold or merged them for a hefty profit.” National Public Radio did a lengthy piece, and television networks weighed in. Short bits of the film may have more impact in South Carolina, which has suffered more job loss than Iowa and New Hampshire.
It would be pleasing to think that the super PACs’ portrayal of real issues, even crudely as in political ads, will contribute to intelligent debate over serious problems. I suppose that can happen only if we can talk while gritting our teeth.