Elections, Legal, National

Blake: Sanders raises big money campaigning against Big Money and Citizens United

Bernie Sanders, who talks incessantly about the evils of the Citizens United court case, is getting little support for his position from the 2016 presidential race.

Not that he would notice. There seems to a total disconnect between his campaign and his campaign speeches.

In March, Sanders raised an astounding $44 million, mostly in small donations. His totals have grown each month, having taken in $21.3 million in January and $43.5 million in February. Rival Hillary Clinton raised only $29.5 million in March and Sanders out-raised her the previous two months as well.

What motivates his donors? According to interviews conducted by The Wall Street Journal, they like his stands against “income inequality” and in favor of overhauling the campaign finance system. His applause-line attacks on Citizens United are as predictable as his attacks on Wall Street and the 1 percent.

Sanders can raise big money by campaigning against Big Money.

Of course what Sanders objects to is not his direct donations, which are mostly raised on the Internet. He objects to the money collected by super PACs supporting his rivals even though by law they’re not formally connected to them. He apparently believes they’re evil because Big Money is so persuasive that hapless voters inevitably support its candidate.

And of course Big Money expects its will to be done by the candidates once they’re in office.

How did that kind of money work out for you, Jeb Bush? And your donors?

Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC raised $119 million and spent all but $12 million, which is being returned to donors. But he won no state primaries, couldn’t get out of the single digits and suspended his campaign in February. A dozen other GOP presidential candidates with smaller super PACs are also gone.

In the Internet Age, more than ever, message is more important than money in attracting votes. It may be the wrong message, but if it’s delivered with passion, it can attract followers — and their money.

If your message doesn’t resonate, and Jeb Bush’s didn’t, no amount of money is going to rescue you.

In the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case of 2010, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations. The principle has been extended to spending by labor unions and for-profit corporations.

In striking down that part of the McCain-Feingold Act that prohibited corporations and unions from making independent expenditures and “electionering communications,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

Corporations and unions, like it or not, are “associations of citizens” organized for business purposes, profit or nonprofit.   They can have an unpleasant culture and be hard to work for, but they are not inherently evil and have First Amendment rights.

It’s not other candidates or government but stockholders and union members who might complain about money going to super PACs.

Then there’s Donald Trump, who is basically funding his own campaign and doesn’t have to respond to his few donors’ desires. He is perfectly capable of adopting misguided, wrong-headed policies on his own.

Free media seems to be as important as paid ads this year. Whenever Trump opens his mouth, the cable networks are content to let him ramble for 20 minutes or more without interruption since that apparently attracts eyeballs who will eventually see the commercials.

Sanders has been coming on strong, winning seven of the last eight states. But if Clinton hangs on to defeat him, it won’t be because of her super PAC money but because of the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system. It was set up, in fact, for the very purpose of keeping the nomination away from candidates popular with Democrats but likely to lose unaffiliated voters and thus the general election. Think George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis — and Sanders.

Super PACs aren’t a natural born creation. They exist because Congress has prohibited corporate contributions to candidates and put limits on individual gifts.

That may also be a First Amendment issue but not one the Supreme Court is ready to revisit.

Super PACs can be a problem because they can say things the candidate may not agree with or want to stress. They can cause the candidate to lose control of his own campaign.

By the way, awkward as it might be, Sanders does have a small super PAC working for him. According to the Washington Post, it’s run by the nurses’ union. It’s not authorized by him but there’s nothing he can do about it.

Those opposed to Citizens United commonly favor the public financing of campaigns. Now there’s a violation of free speech: Being forced to contribute, through taxes, to the campaign of an ambitious office-seeker with whom you disagree.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.


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