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

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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

  • Michael Wyland

    One hopes that Bernie Sanders knows better. No US Supreme Court nominee worthy of the role would – or should – ever pledge to overturn an existing Court ruling. It’s especially jarring to hear such talk from an experienced US Senator.

    One reason is that the Court’s rulings often turn on specific questions referred to it by the various appeals courts across the country. The Court’s justices may, of course, wander afield and do as they please, but they generally decide issues of law with policy implications rather than decide on public policy itself.

    Another reason is the principle of “stare decisis,” which basically means that the Court tries to honor existing precedent and minimize giving conflicting signals to lower courts and, by extension, the country. In fact, the Citizens United ruling itself addressed whether the majority overturned existing precedent and did not honor stare decisis, or whether it corrected erroneous decisions on campaign finance that, themselves, were not in line with historical precedent.

  • jwood13

    As we say in New England, the man’s got moxie. I appreciate Bernie’s candor and decision not to use Super Pac money as well as the author’s conclusion that “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”. I really believe this needs to be a focal point for Bernie’s campaign. Though he has made his stance on Citizens United well known and has decided not to accept Super Pac money, I believe his campaign has yet to highlight this distinction.

  • Terry Fernsler

    One would think Michael Wyland would know better. Bernie Sanders is a candidate for President, not the Supreme Court. While a nominee for the court ought not pledge to overturn existing rulings, it happens quite frequently and nearly half of the sitting Supreme Court justices were nominated exactly because of a pledge to overturn (or at least attempt to when the opportunity arises) exiting rulings. To think decisions turn on only on issues of law and not policy is naive. Witness the decision of the Court to decide which cases it will hear. Rather than staid automatons, our history is replete with activist Supreme Court justices, ever since John Marshall.

    In fact, activist judges on the bench had to overcome “stare decisis” to come up with the majority opinion in Citizens United. They set aside McConnell v. FEC, in which the Court upheld the very provision it it ruled unconstitutional in Citizens United, and Austin v. Chamber of Commerce, where the Court ruled that a Michigan law limiting corporate expenditures in elections did not violate the First Amendment

    Aside from activist judges, for a presidential candidate and a Senator–or anyone for that matter–to call for overturning a ruling that negatively impacts the the vast majority of citizens may be jarring, but is what most people expect from their elected representatives. (One wonders whether Mr. Wyland is so aghast at all the right-wing Congresspeople who call for the overturn of Roe v. Wade.) If people did not do so, we may never have seen the passage of Amendments 13, 14, 15, or even 16. The first three of these, most people would agree, constitute major improvements in the legal establishment of rights.

    Citizens United is based on a line of “stare decisis” that began with a mistaken interpretation of a previous case (

  • Terry Fernsler

    It may be a mistake to relegate Bernie Sanders to a role of moving Hillary to the left. His candidacy could move the entire presidential frame to the left. Many citizens have become cynical of the electoral process, because it has plays no positive role for us. Bernie shows that he cares about the people, and may inspire hope, from both the left and the right, ala Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

  • John Locke

    This is what Bernie hates :

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    He certainly does want to “abridge” that troublesome freedom of speech. He hates that a lot of it which he doesn’t agree with gets spoken anyway!! Gotta do something about that !

  • Robert Steele

    I was stunned to be enlightened by Richard Winger, the founder of Ballot Access News, who pointed out to me that CITIZENS UNITED was in fact a “correct” decision in Constitutional terms. As much as I do not like the outcome, I have to see that Richard has a point.

    Now to Bernie: the fact is that CITIZENS UNITED would not matter if our votes counted, but they do not. There are eight specific ways in which the two-party tyranny prevents the other six accreditted parties from having any hope of achieving vote or voice in Congress — I offer a public brief at

    Until Tom Steyer and Peter Ackerman and others stop their frivolous one stop shops and recognize that Electoral Reform as a whole — all eight points including paper ballots, end ot gerrymandering, public funding and candidate access to media and more — is the only fight we can win, every dollar they spend on isolated issues and singular fixes will be wasted — theaterical cosmic waste. IMHO.