I am sure that it was not the intent of the five members of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court to throw President Obama a softball. In deciding to overturn the ban on corporate and labor union funding in political campaigns, they were too busy focusing on how best to address a long standing grievance of certain conservative politicians and legal scholars to notice that the immediate beneficiary of their decision would be the President.
It has long puzzled me that anyone would consider a corporation an individual. I suppose that corporations came along and one judge said to another judge, "How do we deal with these?" and it was decided that as a corporation is not the sovereign, it must be treated as an individual under the law. For all I know, the designation works in most cases, facilitating legal proceedings in which a corporation is involved.
The founders, however, did not intend to drown democracy in corporate cash. In the same way as it is ridiculous to speak of "animal rights" if rights be the things we find discussed in the First Amendment and uniquely the provenance of humans, it is likewise ridiculous to attribute to a corporation the rights embodied in that amendment. Should corporations now have the right to register to vote? The majority of the Court, not for the first time and not for the last, decided it was capable of being ridiculous in assessing the effect of its intervention into the nation’s political life. Next thing you know, they will say that electoral legitimacy demands that votes not be recounted in a close presidential race – oops! Been there. Done that.
Not since the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, which overturned some of the campaign finance reforms enacted after Watergate, has the Court so aggressively set aside the expressed will of the political branches. The Buckley decision had the unintended consequence of giving rise to the modern political action committee or PAC. Independent PACs expanded from 110 in 1977 to 1,003 in 1985. Corporate PACs increased more than tenfold to 1,710 in 1985. The decision yesterday was at least candid about the exploitation it welcomes. There is nothing unintended about letting corporations spend unlimited amounts of money gaming the system.
With conservatives, I admit that the idea of incumbents deciding how campaigns can be run fills me with dread. But, there is no alternative. It would be one thing to intervene if a reform had been passed by one party over against another, if the reforms were designed to game the system for one party or another. But, allowing unlimited corporate money into the political process is surely, recognizably and obviously just as great a danger. And, in the event, the laws the justices were addressing were bi-partisan, which leads to the next point.
The reason the decision helps President Obama is this: Independent voters, the ones who backed Obama in 2008 and Scott Brown last Tuesday, want bi-partisanship. Indeed, almost by definition, a voter who is not affiliated with either party wants his or her political leaders to transcend partisanship as easily as they do. The problem for Obama was that the GOP has refused to dance with him on virtually any issue. They say they felt locked out of the negotiations on health care but their "solutions" to the health care crisis were not solutions. News flash: Tort Reform will not cure the health care crisis in America. They say they want to focus on the economy, but they oppose the kind of direct government spending that would actually stimulate the economy, preferring tax cuts that will do nothing to produce a single job.
But, campaign finance reform has a following in both parties. Indeed, the most famous recent instance of campaign finance reform was the McCain-Feingold bill. So, yesterday, after the decision, President Obama and Sen. McCain both took to the airwaves to denounce the decision. The visual alone gave Obama something he needed, to be seen standing not just with Democrats on an important issue. Over the long term, he and other progressives are likely to be hurt by the court’s decision but in the short term, it gave the President a chance to link arms with his opponent from the 2008 election, to transcend the partisan sniping. And, it gives him an important issue on which to show the nation, and especially those Independent voters, that sometimes you need Big Government to check Big Business. Letting the titans who wrecked Wall Street purchase Pennsylvania Avenue is not the path to the freedom aimed at by the First Amendment the Court said it was trying to protect.