How Citizens United Helped Newt Gingrich And Hurt The Republican Party

Sheldon Adelson is the man behind Newt Gingrich's anti-establishment success

Newt Gingrich is a Washington insider but he’s not in the good graces of his party’s elite. And yet he manages to stay competitive in the GOP primary.

Jon Chait makes an interesting point about the competitiveness of the Gingrich campaign:

Money is the primary mechanism that parties use to herd voters toward the choices the elites would prefer them to make. The nomination of George W. Bush offers a classic example. Bush and his network had organized so many Republicans to donate so much money that the contest was essentially over well before a vote had been cast. The Bush fund-raising network didn’t involve a handful of billionaires in a room. It required thousands of fairly affluent people working together.

He points to the GOP marching orders on Gingrich:

If Gingrich does win, veteran GOP strategists tell CNN to expect pressure on Senate Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders to call key GOP donors and ask them not to contribute to Gingrich’s campaign.

Chait notes that ten years ago “this sort of edict would have suffocated Gingrich. But under the present system, Gingrich can simply have a single extremely wealthy supporter, Sheldon Adelson, write a series of $5 million checks.”

Now I draw a very different conclusion than Chait from this. Here’s Chait:

Conservatives may not care much about the good-government problems that this scenario raises. (I care! Imagine a sitting President trying to make a fair judgment about a policy decision impacting the businessman who single-handedly financed his entire election.) But they may come to care about the problems arising from a system that now allows one very, very rich man with very, very poor political instincts to overturn their own best laid plans.

On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened. Our two-party system really is a threat to American democracy. No power bases are more entrenched than the Democratic and Republican parties. Money be damned, if the party is going to unite around Bush in 2000 then McCain’s chances are null and void. In 2012, the rules have changed.

Is this the first crack in the GOP’s thick armor – an even more stunning change of fortune than the Tea Party sweep in 2010? I wrote recently about how Citizens United helped take at least a little power away from traditional media corporations. Is it also weakening the two-party grip on the political system? Could this be the beginning of the end for lesser-of-two-evils democracy in America?

To Chait’s fretting over good government, why should we be more concerned with the influence of one billionaire over the decisions of a hypothetical president Newt Gingrich than with the amassed influence of corporations over the Republican party itself? After all, if Gingrich did anything explicitly to help Sheldon Adelson we’d know about it rather quickly. Everyone would be paying close attention. But the machinations of the Republican party itself and the money which keeps the back-scratching mutual between the party and its benefactors is largely opaque – a perpetual process that, like breathing, we barely notice at all.

Follow me on Twitter or FacebookRead my Forbes blog here.


Colbert’s Brilliant Super PAC Ad ‘Mitt The Ripper’ (Starring John Lithgow)

How can you not love an ad voiced by John Lithgow which accuses Romney of being a serial killer since he “killed” corporations who are “people, my friend”?

The thing is, this ad is essentially just an extension of Colbert’s show. The ad itself is hilarious, but it’s as much a spoof of negative ads as it is an attack on Romney. More importantly, it shows just how little these ads actually represent an existential threat our democracy. As I argue in my Atlantic piece, the real threat is two-fold: the stranglehold the mainstream media has over the political process – and the gads of money that the big corporations who own the mainstream money can spend on that process – and the money that greases the wheels of power. Citizens United allows people to spend more money on “electioneering” which is just not nearly as big a deal as many apoplectic souls make it out to be.

I enjoyed this ad in the same way that I enjoy Colbert’s television show. And I’m even watching it on an embed from Comedy Central, owned by Viacom, a media company historically exempted from campaign finance laws.

(Actually, some negative ad campaigns can backfire for candidates. Maybe more people should think about using cutting humor instead of boring, predictable vitriol, to make their point. Just a thought.)

Follow me on Twitter or FacebookRead my Forbes blog here.