The Citizens United Campaign for the White House: Bernie Sanders vs. Everyone Else

Sanders

May 10, 2015; Politico

Among the major political issues that will get little or no attention in the burgeoning presidential campaign are several that should be of major interest to the nonprofit sector. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is raising one in his perhaps quixotic campaign to nudge Hillary Clinton to the left: If he is elected president, he says, his Supreme Court nominees will have to pledge that they would vote to overturn the Citizens United decision that unleashed huge, unrestricted amounts of corporate and union campaign contributions as dark money into federal campaigns—like the one that has Hillary Clinton facing off against Sanders for Democratic votes and a bevy of candidates competing for the Republican nod.

Unlike Clinton and the president, who both articulated discomfort with unrestricted corporate campaign money into Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s and (c)(6)s—and then proceeded to take advantage of the dynamic anyhow, Sanders has pledged not to use a Super PAC to raise money for his campaign. He says that since starting his run for the White House, 90,000 donors have contributed to his campaign, giving an average donation of $43.

Hillary Clinton is going a step further in her campaign than Obama did in his by actually making appearances with Priorities USA, the top Democratic Super PAC, toward raising some $200 to $300 million for it to do battle with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC. Obama didn’t eschew Super PAC money, but he wasn’t on the campaign stump raising money for entities that are supposed to be independent. Even though the Super PAC was created by his former aides, he never personally appeared at Priorities USA events, but Clinton will be meeting with Priorities USA donors, though undoubtedly remaining careful not to explicitly ask them to donate or increase their donations to the ostensibly independent Super PAC. At least this time around, co-founder Bill Burton says, it will be clear that Priorities will be raising money for a Super PAC to support a candidate who won’t be thought of as “indifferent” to it, as some donors perceived Obama.

This is Sanders’ point: If candidates tolerate or even endorse the idea of corporations bankrolling their campaigns, even if through ostensibly “independent” entities such as Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, how can the public possibly imagine that they won’t be influenced by those donations to take positions more aligned with their corporate agendas? Implicitly, this might be the notion behind Sanders’ opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty and its fast-tracked congressional approval. Clinton has yet to make a firm statement against the TPP, though she has been on record as leaning in favor of it in her pre-campaign time. She may be hoping that the TPP is an issue that gets resolved before the election is in full swing, so she won’t have to explain her position against the TPP support of some of her likely corporate donors. Free of corporate influence, it appears, Sanders is willing to take the public stance against TPP and fast-tracking that Clinton has so far sidestepped.

Of course, on the other side of the presidential aisle, there is hardly a Republican candidate who isn’t actively ginning up support with and through Super PACs. Jeb Bush’s campaign is balancing fundraising for the official campaign with fundraising for the Right to Rise Super PAC, aiming to bank $100 million by the end of May. Because Bush hasn’t officially announced his campaign and because he isn’t a federal office holder, he can at the moment solicit money for the Super PAC itself.

The other candidates are running as fast as they can for Super PAC money. Ted Cruz’s Super PACs pulled in $31 million after his Liberty University campaign announcement, reportedly in a single week. A Super PAC behind Sen. Marco Rubio pulled in $20 million in less than two weeks, and two billionaires are signed to support the Super PAC that favors Governor Chris Christie. On the Republican side, it’s like a Super PAC sweepstakes. Florida billionaire Norman Braman is supporting Rubio, while the family of hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer is supporting Ted Cruz. The Koch network of donors is open to five candidates (Rubio, Bush, Cruz, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul), while everyone is waiting to see where casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam land.

This is the state of democracy today. And just think about the people who think that 501(c)(3) charities, with their nickels and dimes, should be able to endorse and campaign for political candidates. What do they imagine nonprofits might be able to deliver in exchange for their electoral involvement, as compared with the billions likely to flow from the Koch brothers, the Adelsons, and others?

For those who think that money is equivalent to free speech, the Super PAC dynamic shows that it elections are completely out of control, that money is buying “free” speech, that political speech costs millions or potentially billions. Sanders may push Hillary Clinton to nudge left on issues such as immigration reform, economic policy, and even perhaps the TPP, but until candidates actively eschew Citizens United, it will be difficult to imagine that in politics, it is anything other than money talks and the rest of us walk.—Rick Cohen