Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidates, from left, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at the Democratic primary debate June 27. — AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Amid the many words that 20 Democratic candidates for president uttered during their opening debates last month, two vitally important ones went almost entirely unsaid: Citizens United. That is the shorthand name for the 2010 Supreme Court decision that has to rank among the most destructive to American democracy ever handed down.

Citizens United opened the floodgates for so-called “dark money” — donations whose source is allowed to remain hidden — to swamp the electoral process. The ruling consecrated the dubious principle that a corporation enjoys free speech just like an individual, and it allowed wealthy donors to keep secret their contributions to fiercely ideological, unofficially partisan nonprofit groups.

While both Democrats and Republicans have played that cynical game, it was the conservative faction of the high court that narrowly pushed through the ruling. And the vast majority of dark money since then has advanced right-wing causes and candidates, as an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows.

So, Citizens United should be a galvanizing issue for Democrats, one equally appealing to the party’s progressive and moderate wings. Beyond that, a Pew poll last year found bipartisan support — in the range of 65% to 77% — for renewed limits on big money in politics, making an assault on Citizens United potentially attractive to the sliver of swing voters any Democratic nominee for president will likely need to defeat President Donald Trump.

And yet you hardly would have guessed so if you followed the two-part Democratic debate on June 26 and 27. There was plenty of talk devoted to Medicare For All, immigration policy, income inequality and, to a lesser extent, gun control and climate change. The most sizzling moment came when California Sen. Kamala Harris upbraided former Vice President Joe Biden over his past opposition to school busing for racial integration.

Only for two fleeting moments during all the rhetoric did two distantly trailing candidates bother to mention Citizens United. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker dropped the name the first night, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet called for the ruling’s overturning the second night.

Incredibly, though, neither man made any effort to explain what Citizens United was about, much less why it ought to be reversed, or why Democratic voters have reasons other than protecting abortion rights under Roe v. Wade to want to elect a president and seat a Senate that can appoint some liberal and moderate justices to the federal courts.

None of the other candidates picked up the opportunity to discuss Citizens United, even though its protection of stealth wealth would have seemed an ideal target for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both have built their campaigns as crusaders against entrenched, unaccountable, corrupting plutocracy — the very thing enshrined by Citizens United.

It is true that “social welfare” organizations — as the federal tax code improbably calls them in Section 501©4 — trafficked in political work before Citizens United. But those efforts at least had to be packaged as advocating for particular issues, not candidates. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling, with an opinion authored by the Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy, permitted the nonprofits to explicitly spend money on political persuasion, as long as it wasn’t a group’s primary activity. — (CNN)

Not surprisingly, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the annual total of dark money soared from about $5.2 million in 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012, the first presidential cycle after the ruling. By now, as the Center for Responsive Politics has calculated, unnamed donors have put more than $2 billion into organizations that are wholly or partly shielded from public disclosure and scrutiny. Individual donors from the right, such as the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Robert Mercer, have especially enjoyed the legal cloak.

During the first week of January 2019, as a Democratic majority took control of the House of Representatives, its members voted unanimously to pass a sweeping anti-corruption measure that partly addressed the dark-money plague. Naturally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to let the bill come to a vote in the Senate.

To judge by the first round of debates, virtually every Democratic candidate has let the issue die with McConnell’s predictable obstruction. Why they would drop the issue, and miss the chance to identify a very convenient villain, is a mystery.

All 20 candidates on stage, and the mass of journalists covering them, will get another chance when the next round of debates takes place in Detroit on July 30 and 31. Somebody on that stage had better be able to make the winning case against Citizens United, its judicial architects and its partisan beneficiaries — the most abhorrent of whom happens to currently occupy the White House. — (CNN)

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, a former New York Times columnist and the author of eight books.

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, a former New York Times columnist and the author of eight books.

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