Matt Bai on the Post-Citizens United Political Landscape
By: Doug Schoen, Forbes
The New York Times’s excellent political correspondent, Matt Bai, is out with another provocative article, “How Much Has Citizens United Changed the Political Game?” It’s getting lots of attention and comment on all sides. If I may summarize his argument briefly:
1. Bai argues that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling “was more incremental than transformational” in its effects on our campaign-finance system. It made some important changes to the way independent groups did things, but these groups were already exerting an enormous influence on campaigns—as the 2004 election and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth demonstrated.
2. A bigger culprit than Citizens United, he argues, was the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law of 2002. McCain-Feingold put an end to the old party-driven “soft-money” system and paved the way for the huge increases in outside-group spending.
3. Bai suggests that the increase in outside spending from one presidential election to the next over the last decade—from 2004 to 2008, and from 2008 to this year—has been fairly constant. Before Citizens United and Super PACs, “527” groups were having the same effect.
4. He questions how much utility all this spending has, beyond a certain amount—that is, while a poorly funded candidate can’t win, beyond a certain (unknown) threshold, spending more and more ultimately brings diminishing returns.
As it happens, my forthcoming book, American Casino: The Rigged Game That’s Killing Democracy, addresses many of these issues.
But American Casino is not focused solely on Citizens United and Super PACs: it covers the last decade in American politics, including the impact of McCain-Feingold (on which my take is similar to Bai’s). My central thesis is that because of the increasing, even determinative role of outside money in our elections, we are losing the very essence of our democracy—one man, one vote, as well as the broader idea that our political leaders are representatives of a cross-section of the electorate, as opposed to narrow special interests or eccentric billionaires. I argue that unless we make serious reforms soon, we stand to lose what is left of our democratic system.
I don’t agree with Bai that Citizens United’s effect has been merely incremental. But what strikes me most about Bai’s piece is not what he says about Citizens United, but about how our campaign-finance system has been transformed over the last decade. In his conclusion, I find little to differ with: Bai argues, as do I, that outside political groups have essentially put an end to the traditional party fundraising system—one that, while often corrupt itself, had certain democratic checks and balances. But as Bai puts it, over the last decade we have created “a world in which a big part of the money in a presidential campaign is spent by political entrepreneurs and strategists who are unanswerable to any institution. Candidates and parties who become the vehicles of angry outsiders, as Mitt Romney is now, don’t really have control of their own campaigns anymore; to a large extent, they are the instruments of volatile forces beyond their own reckoning.”
I argue much the same in American Casino. I track, for example, the remarkably dispositive role that Super PACs played in the 2012 GOP primaries, and how, at each crucial moment that he was challenged, Mitt Romney’s enormous Super PAC spending advantage succeeded in influencing outcomes in his favor. Unlike Bai, I find it hard to imagine such a scenario playing out in quite the same way without the Citizens United ruling.
But in a sense, the debate about Citizens United is almost forensic. Whether the groups that put Romney over the top were Super PACs or 527s, the issue remains the same: our campaign-finance system is out of control, and it endangers our democracy. On this, Matt Bai and I would seem to agree.