Columns » Max Brantley

Sold! American government

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With the general election eight months away, it's not too early to say that the electoral process has been purchased by the highest bidders.

In its Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited spending by corporations and the super rich in nominally independent causes. It took only a few weeks of the Republican presidential primary to prove the court's naivete in believing that spending would be independent.

The race in the Republican primary seems ready to go to the richest Super PAC, the one created by friends of Mitt Romney and run in lockstep — coincidentally, of course — with the Romney campaign. President Obama has sacrificed his own principle and okayed Super PACs in his cause, too.

At the national level, evil may cancel out evil, to a degree.

It's down the ballot where evil multiplies. A Democratic candidate for Congress in Arkansas was heavily damaged in 2010 by $60,000 in independent expenditures by a shadowy group. An outfit with a mail drop in Virginia beat up Bill Halter in his losing primary race against Sen. Blanche Lincoln. A stealth group put $30,000 into 2010 state legislative races that Republicans swept. I don't think it's a bit of exaggeration to say you could buy a majority of the Arkansas legislature with $1 million in targeted expenditures on swing districts.

The money game is played mostly by Republicans. Few deep-pocketed Democrat have taken the long view down the ballot. It is a mistake. It takes only 40 votes in the U.S. Senate to block anything a president might propose. Given the increasing polarity of U.S. congressional districts, control of the U.S. House boils down to a few dozen swing districts, some in media-cheap states like Arkansas.

Then there are the state legislatures. The black face of the Democratic presidential nominee was the catalyst for a Republican surge in Arkansas in 2010. Republicans will spend even more this year to get a majority. Expect lots of "independent" expenditures and shadowy front groups. Expect the money to be directed by campaign consultants who have been Republican Party of Arkansas officials. They will identify frequent Republican voters and pound them with direct mail telling them the Democratic candidates hate God and guns and love gays and taxes. They'll sprinkle the mailings liberally with photographs of Barack Obama, preferably in company of Muslims.

These campaign efforts are supported off-season by conservative lobbies such as the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. It attacked a Democratic candidate for state House in Little Rock in 2010 because she refused to sign pledges before the fact, whether against anti-pollution laws or anything else. Those who take the pledge are well treated. AFP put on a series of dinners during the legislative session for favored Republican legislators averaging $60 to $90 per person at the swank Capital Hotel, Bosco's and other fine eat-and-drinkeries. It provides junkets, too. Last fall, it sent a clutch of legislators, including House Minority Leader John Burris, to Washington for AFP indoctrination sessions.

Koch money helps drive those behind the kooky constitutional amendment to give the states control over the federal deficit. End result: Strangle the federal government. That will further reduce the Koch brothers' taxes and regulatory pressures.

In short, win enough races in Bigelow and Bodcaw and the next thing you know you might control the whole shebang. In the interim, the 20 billionaires who've put $33 million into Super PACs so far this year can expect a high return from grateful politicians for their comparatively trivial investment. Think Bush tax cuts.

Sign those Regnant Populus Arkansas ethics reforms petitions primary election day. Time is short for the 99 percent.

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