Three years ago, midway through his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama took on the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
“With all due deference to the separation of powers,” the president said, “last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. [Applause.] I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. [Applause.]”
Justice Samuel Alito, by mouthing the words “not true” as Obama read these sentences off of the TelePrompTer, delivered, with all due deference, one of the most memorable and public rebuttals of our time. The Citizens United decision to which Obama referred did not actually reverse “a century of law.” The idea that the court had opened a door through which “foreign corporations” and “foreign entities” could influence U.S. elections was false. What evidence exists of illegal foreign contributions to political campaigns actually points in the direction of none other than President Obama. Would Obama recant?
Obama would not. His ritual denunciations of the court and Citizens United and the secretive “powerful interests” continued. The leaders of that “other party,” he said in an August 2010 weekly address, “want to keep the public in the dark. They don’t want you to know which interests are paying for the ads. The only people who don’t want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide. Well, we cannot allow the corporate takeover of our democracy.”
That takeover would come in the form of “front groups,” he said on the campaign trail that October, “running misleading negative ads all across America. Tens of billions of dollars are pouring in. And they don’t have the courage to stand up and disclose their identities.” The solar-powered high-speed train of progress might come to a sudden and violent halt. “It’s a threat to our democracy.”
But democracy had something rather different in mind. Turns out, voters suffering through a bad economy and opposed to the Affordable Care Act do not base their votes on the abstruse and lengthy regulations concerning donations to federal elections. They have more immediate concerns. And they are not about to fall for a red herring about the Chamber of Commerce. Republicans in 2010 won the national House vote by 52 to 45 percent and picked up six Senate seats. Those “misleading negative ads” worked.
Obama learns from his mistakes. He abandoned his stance of campaign finance purity as his reelection campaign approached, even though he continued to attack donors to conservative and Republican causes. He dispatched Joe Biden to pitch donors to the secret-money George Soros group the Democracy Alliance in November 2011. He embraced the Super Political Action Committee affiliated with his campaign, Priorities USA Action, in February 2012. His flip on same-sex marriage led to a donations bonanza. The unlimited donations to and expenditures of Priorities—$79 million raised, $65 million spent—financed “Understands,” the 60-second misleading negative ad blaming Mitt Romney for a woman’s death by cancer. Obama’s reluctant dive into the post-Citizens-United universe ended up a perfect somersault tuck.
Such a perfect somersault tuck, in fact, that in the months since the election Obama has moved, like Emeril, to kick his campaign finance hypocrisy up a notch. Last month, he announced that his campaign, Obama for America, would be reconstituted as “Organizing for Action,” a political entity organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code.
Organizing for Action pledges on its website not to "be involved in anyway in elections" or—no joke—"partisan political activity." 501(c)(4) groups can engage in lobbying and electioneering but do not have to disclose the identities of their donors. They are precisely the sorts of organization, in other words, that at one point in the not-so-distant past Barack Obama expended considerable energy condemning. But, hey, what are you going to do? There are illegal immigrants to amnesty and gun purchases to restrict. “The country simply needs it,” Organizing for Action’s new chairman, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, was quoted as telling a group of donors on the eve of the presidential inauguration.
What Organizing for Action needs is a lot of money—but there are plenty of potential sources. “In its first days, Organizing for Action has closely affiliated itself with insider liberal organizations funded by mega-donors like George Soros and corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Citi, and Duke Energy,” Kenneth P. Vogel, Tarini Parti, and Byron Tau of Politico reported last week. This week a spokesman for Walmart told the WFB’s Alana Goodman that donations by the retailer to Organizing for Action are “a hypothetical at this point.” What about at the next point? And would we even know, considering the ability of 501(c)(4) groups to shield their donors, whether such a hypothetical donation had been made? The Obama people have been awfully cagey regarding the means by which they intend to disclose contributions. They have a history of changing positions on campaign finances at the slightest whim. Why give them the benefit of the doubt?
And why not scrutinize, too, the constantly mutating multicellular organism known as the progressive movement? Organizing for Action does not exist in isolation. There is the aforementioned Priorities USA Action. There is the Common Purpose Project, another 501(c)(4) “founded to bring together progressive leaders and organizations in an effort to collaborate on effective public policy messaging.” (That’s Washington-speak for “coordinating strategy.”) One Erik Smith, who took a leave of absence in 2012 to work for Obama, runs Common Purpose. So now he has the same boss, but works in a different shop.
There is also Business Forward, an association of “more than 40 of the world’s largest and most respected companies” that makes “it easier for entrepreneurs, investors, small business owners, and senior executives from across America to get involved in the policy-making process.” They get involved in the policy-making process by forking over a membership fee to Business Forward, which then organizes meetings between company officials and White House personnel. How does Business Forward enjoy such extraordinary access, which not coincidentally skirts White House lobbying rules? Well, its heads are longtime Democratic consultants Bert Kaufman and Jim Doyle, who enjoy deep and longstanding connections to White House officials and other titans of progressivism. Business Forward announced two new hires on Feb. 5: Diana Doukas and Greg Schultz. Both have worked for Obama’s campaigns.
And finally there is the Democracy Initiative, the secretive association of more than 30 progressive groups that are plotting a major campaign to limit the filibuster, attack Republican donors, and increase Democratic turnout.
The Obama machine functions in the following manner. Corporations seeking to curry favor with the administration can donate generously and secretly to Organizing for America. They also can join Business Forward. The reward is access, as well as the prospect that impending regulations and administrative protocols will be shaped to the corporation’s liking. Failure to donate, however, may put your corporation in the crosshairs of the members of the Democracy Initiative and Common Purpose Project. Suddenly you will see your business the target of “grassroots outrage” and intense and adversarial journalism. The attention will be unfriendly and annoying. But there will be a pretty obvious, if expensive, way of making it stop: Donate to Obama’s 501(c)(4).
Consider the experience of Walmart, long a villain of the left and the object of Obama’s derision in 2008. In 2009, however, when Walmart became a founding member of Business Forward, someone in the West Wing hit the criticism mute button. Before long, Walmart was working with the First Lady on the “Let’s Move!” exercise. All was well.
Or consider Organizing for Action’s recent alliance with Enroll America, a health insurance group whose leadership has ties to the White House. The two organizations, Politico reports, plan an intense effort to encourage Americans to purchase insurance plans mandated under the Affordable Care Act. The more people who sign up, the more customers for the industry represented by Enroll America, the more Obamacare looks like a success, and thus more pressure on insurance companies to give to Democrats writing health insurance regulations. As scams go, this one can’t be beat.
“The proliferation of undisclosed money, I think, is a very unhealthy thing,” David Axelrod laughably told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd this week. He must be kidding. Secret money, front groups, negative ads, powerful interests—Citizens United was the best thing that happened to Barack Obama in years.