Columns » Ernest Dumas

Citizens United: the joke's on GOP

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Let us take a moment to savor the irony of Newt Gingrich's implosion and Mitt Romney's perhaps mortal wounds, both from a device of their own engineering or admiration — the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended a century of strivings for campaign-finance reform.

By Dec. 9, the former speaker of the House had surged into the lead in Iowa and South Carolina polls and was overtaking Romney in the national horse race. That is when Romney's super-PAC, Restore Our Future, founded by three former political aides and commanded by Romney's former partners at Bain Capital Management, plunked down $2.8 million in Iowa for TV ads attacking Gingrich for the final three weeks before the presidential caucuses. It poured more millions into New Hampshire and South Carolina, the other two early presidential voting venues. The ads attacked Gingrich's ethics, honesty, greed and patchy record on conservative issues.

Gingrich finished a dismal fourth in Iowa and plunged in New Hampshire, South Carolina and nationally. Boy, was he mad last week!

Next week, we will celebrate the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court said corporations and special interests from trade associations to unions could spend any sum they wished for a political candidate or an issue as long as they give it to a political group that can cover its tracks and pretend to be "independent" of the candidate.

Romney insisted that he had absolutely nothing to do with the ads attacking Gingrich, but when Gingrich and the moderator pressed him in the New Hampshire debate Saturday he identified a number of the attacks and defended them as correct after Gingrich said they were lies. Romney admitted that the people who ran the PAC and did the ads were longtime friends.

The wall the Supreme Court erected between a candidate and an independent group is, in other words, simply a joke. It doesn't need to be anything more.

Romney has seen the Citizens United decision as a key to his election, telling a person who questioned him about the decision last fall, "corporations are people, my friend." The court said corporations were entitled to the same privileges the Constitution gives individuals, including free speech. Corporations could use the unlimited funds from their coffers to influence elections and the actions of elected officials in ways that individuals could, too, if they only had the money.

But Gingrich really was hoist with his own petard, as Shakespeare would have put it. Until this, he claimed paternity for Citizens United.

"I actually think that the Citizens United case is one of the best examples of a genuine strategy that I've seen since I've been in Washington," he once said. He sent out a plea for money to help "Citizens United and me in our fight for the First Amendment rights of every American" — i.e., corporate Americans.

The Citizens United case can be said to be the progeny of the '90s K Street Project of Gingrich and Tom Delay, which gave corporate interests and their lobbyists a bigger hand in writing laws and influencing executive decisions in exchange for GOP campaign support. The conservative nonprofit Citizens United was set up to go after Democrats and expand the horizons for big money in elections. The court case involved the nonprofit's attack film on Hillary Clinton, who was deemed to be the likeliest Democratic nominee for president in 2010. The Supreme Court used the case to go far beyond the lawsuit's purpose and effectively strike down restrictions on political spending.

But Citizens United and an old right-wing buddy came to Newt's rescue last week. Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas, a casino billionaire who was grateful to Gingrich for helping preserve favorable tax laws for casinos and beat down a culinary union that was organizing his casino workers, wrote a check for $5 million to Gingrich's "independent" super-PAC, Winning Our Future.

By this week, Gingrich's PAC had bought a stunning $3.4 million of TV time in South Carolina for the next two weeks to air attacks on Romney and a 27-minute film on Romney's job-killing record as a corporate raider.

The film tells how sharks bought companies, shed low-profit operations and jobs, and then sold them at big profits. Romney's "King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town" is potentially devastating.

The only difference between Newt's and Mitt's attacks is that you know exactly who's financing Newt's.

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