This is truly is the most predictable political story of the year — a follow up to the previously most predictable political development. After the Supreme Court (led by John Roberts deciding in a way he suggested he would not decide by Congress) overturned literally decades of law to allow groups to use anonymous corporate donations to fund campaigns in Citizens United, it was predicted that this would mean a tidal wave of secret donor campaign contributions.
Fast foward to the 2010 mid-term elections where it is widely acknowledged that the GOP had a slew of groups (one of them directed by Republican strategist maven Karl Rove) bloating the airwaves with highly effective ads targeting Democrats who in some cases felt they might squeek through an election in a year when voters were sour on the economy and the job performance of Barack Obama. The Supreme Court’s decision to deep-six years of law had an immediate impact.
Many analysts (including yours truly) noted that the Democrats were bound to look at this landscape and despite Obama’s comments on political funding conclude this was the new reality – -and make the adjustments accordingly.
Major Democratic strategists, still reeling from a barrage of midterm spending by conservative groups, are planning a similarly well-funded campaign by liberal organizations aimed at reelecting President Obama in 2012.
The fledgling discussions – including a conference of top Democratic donors that wrapped up in Washington this week – underscore a dramatic shift in strategy by Obama and his aides, who quashed plans for major outside groups in 2008 in order to rely on their own record-breaking donor efforts.
Get ready for the attack spin on this one. The Washington Post goes on:
But many chastened Democrats now say they must fight fire with fire by encouraging the formation of counterweights to the GOP-leaning independent groups that dominated the airwaves this fall. One of the leaders, American Crossroads, says it plans to continue running ads against the Democratic agenda for the next two years.
The change in Democratic strategy illustrates the extent of the fundraising earthquake that has shaken the U.S. political world this year. A series of court decisions effectively wiped away decades of campaign-finance restrictions, helping groups operating outside the political parties spend an estimated $500 million on attack ads and other election-related activities, most of it favoring Republicans.
The apparent change of heart is particularly notable for Obama, who has long advocated strict campaign-finance limits and has sharply criticized the Supreme Court for allowing unlimited political spending by corporations. The shift is reminiscent of Obama’s pragmatic decision to forgo public financing in 2008 to outpace Republican nominee John McCain, who agreed to spending limits in exchange for federal matching funds.
Obama adviser David Axelrod, who will leave the White House in the coming months to focus on the president’s reelection bid, said in an interview: “I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle” when it comes to campaign spending by outside groups.
“We’re going to continue to urge all of our supporters to participate through our campaign,” Axelrod said. “But it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to have this deluge of spending on behalf of Republican candidates and not engender a reaction on the Democratic side. It’s a natural thing.”
In fact, unless it’s seriously suggested that the Democrats not contest the elections, the sorry fact is that the whopping use of this money by the GOP means that the Democrats should either just give up seats in play to the Republicans and not bother putting money into them or accept this as the new political reality — a reality mandated by the Supreme Court. Unless someone at Democratic party headquarters wins the lottery and donates it to the party, it will be at disadvantage if it eschews the use of this kind of funding now that the Republicans have successfully used it extensively.
Such money won’t be a cure all.
If the economy is still weak, if Team Obama and the Democrats continue to show the truly shocking political flat-footed traits that they did in the past two years — if this was America’s Got Political Talent this crew would not make it to the final rounds — it won’t matter.
Meanwhile, another question will be: what kind of impact will seeking this money (whether in the open or at private functions) have on Democratic lawmakers’ policy and attitudes the next few years?
Most likely, it means more than ever that we will see politicians and political parties more than ever trying to win over wealthy individuals and corporations.
At the same time, as the Democrats use this money look for the 24/7 blogosphere and cable news outrage machine to be in full gear.
But unless the Dems decide to just sit home and listen to Lady Gaga CDs or watch Bristol Palin win “Dancing With The Stars,” to win elections they will have to be on a more level playing field and use the new powerful bat handed out by the Supreme Court that Republicans are using.
They can’t go through another election where only the Republicans use a form of funding officially blessed by a Supreme Court that proved it most assuredly does not have infinite wisdom.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.