While the Supreme Court's recent decision on the individual mandate has surely given President Barack Obama a new appreciation for the justices, it hasn't stopped his complaining about the court's decision a couple years ago on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. At a campaign event in Virginia last week, the mere mention of Citizens United provoked boos among supporters who took the president at his word that the decision has opened the floodgates for outside money in elections.
In a new piece in The New York Times, however, Matt Bai challenges this conventional wisdom by examining the actual impact of the decision.
Those who criticize the effect of Citizens United look at these very technical changes and see an obvious causal relationship. The high court says outside groups are allowed to use corporate dollars to expressly support candidates, and suddenly we have this tidal wave of money threatening to overwhelm the airways. One must have led to the other, right?
Well, not necessarily. Legally speaking, zillionaires were no less able to write fat checks four years ago than they are today. And while it is true that 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. According to a brief filed by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, in a Montana case on which the Supreme Court ruled last month, not a single Fortune 100 company contributed to a candidate’s super PAC during this year’s Republican primaries. 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.
Bai also points out a fact that much of media establishment would rather forget. The drive toward outside money did not begin with Karl Rove and company. It began with George Soros and other supporters of Senator John Kerry in 2004. "All told, wealthy liberals spent something close to $200 million in an effort to oust George W. Bush in 2004, setting an entirely new standard for outside spending," Bai writes.
In the spirit of Kerry's bid for president, it's only fitting to conclude that some Obama supporters were for outside money before being against it.