'Citizens United' Unleashed a Monster: Why the Real Winner In the Iowa Caucuses Is the Big-Money Super PAC

News & Politics

The real winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses may not be any of the Republican candidates, but a new political animal that is ugly, loud, anti-democratic and coming to your state in the upcoming primaries and caucuses: the super PAC. 

These creatures—unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling allowing direct corporate funding for “electioneering ads”—are satellite political campaigns that supposedly act independently of the candidates.

They can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. They don't disclose donors until after the votes are counted. And they have been deluging Iowa with millions of dollars of harsh negative TV ads, from groups that are run by political consultants who have previously worked for the candidates. 

On Tuesday morning, Newt Gingrich—who was targeted by nearly one-third of the more than $14 million in super-PAC advertising spent in the weeks before the Iowa Caucus—went on CBS’s “The Early Show” and called Romney “a liar” for claiming there was no link between his official campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC.

“Well, you seem shocked by it!” said Gingrich, when asked if he just called Romney a liar. “This is a man whose staff created the PAC. His millionaire friends fund the PAC. He pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC – it’s baloney. He’s not telling the American people the truth.”

Gingrich has been the target of most super PAC ads in Iowa. These PACs are the bad cop half of the good cop-bad cop dance surrounding the presidential campaign. The candidates themselves tend to appear in TV ads saying mostly positive things and making slight swipes at Obama while their supposedly independent friends throw the political mud. And then the candidates hypocritically decry their mudslinging allies.

A super PAC supporting Ron Paul accused Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy.” Another by a pro-Rick Perry group claimed he “got rich” through ties to Freddie Mac and also took a swipe at both Gingrich and Romney as political insiders. And that was just the beginning. There were more than 1,200 anti-Gingrich TV ads in the state before Christmas, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the week since, the pace has picked up. The super PACs poured vast sums into network television coffers while journalists reported that many Iowans felt their state’s political process had been hijacked.

“Oh goodness,” Jill Jepsen, 57, a retired department store employee told the Los Angeles Times. “I just don't listen to it. I can't listen to it. It makes me sick.”

The super PACs are required to report their donors, but as the Sacramento Bee pointed out in a Tuesday editorial, their lawyers have been busy filing papers to push back the deadline for doing so until after the presidential primaries or caucuses in early states. Such intentional secrecy means the handful of big money donors behind these groups—there were 264 registered PACs as of last week, with assets of $32 million—will not be accountable to anyone other than their candidate of choice.

To date, the registered super PACs have only spent about half of the money raised thus far, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. In other words, they will be playing big roles in the mostly small upcoming primary states.

The question of who benefits from this style of political campaigning has been raised on newspaper editorial pages, where super PACs have been called “slush funds” that distort the democratic process. But there is little prospect they will be slowed or stopped in 2012. Progressive law groups such as Democracy 21 have gone before the Federal Election Commission to seek better, real-time disclosure. However, the FEC is one of the most gridlocked bodies in Washington, a condition that seems to serve the interests of both political parties.

The bottom line is that in Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court majority believed there should be no restraints on what has been called the “marketplace of political ideas.” In short, more political speech, political advertising and messaging—no matter the source or sponsor—should be permitted. The Court also took the view that modern corporations play a valuable role in American life and thus deserve constitutional free speech rights.

In many respects, the super PACs are a perfect representation of “the face of American capitalism,” Kendall Thomas of Columbia Law School told a panel convened by the Brennan Center for Justice shortly after the Citizens United ruling in January 2010. The decision would unleash outsized and unaccountable players into the American political arena, he predicted, just as globalization has ushered large corporate players into the international economic order. “We need to contest the vision of politics, and the vision of politics embraced in Citizens United, which views citizenship and constitutional democracy as part of the world of commodities,” he concluded.

And so in the very states that vie for national attention in the start of the nominating process—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada—voters are likely to find themselves overwhelmed by negative messaging from the latest big-money political behemoth. Few people watching the super PAC ads in Iowa would suggest they are legitimate proxies for ordinary citizens in a struggling economy. If anything, this messaging may be a factor behind the 41 percent of Republicans in the state that pollsters said were undecided just before the Caucuses. 

Indeed, the losers in the Iowa Caucuses are not just the Republicans with the fewest supporters. They are that state’s voters—and voters in the primary and caucus states to follow—who will experience a political process increasingly distant from their lives.  

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