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Pity Poor Newt (And Us)

Pity poor Newt Gingrich.

Alright, I admit it’s hard to muster much pity for Gingrich.

Still, he now stands as not the first, but the most recent, prominent victim of the Supreme Court’s abysmal decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

So if you don’t have any sympathy for Gingrich, at least feel profound worry about the state of our democracy – and make sure you do something about it.

There are many reasons to believe a Newt Gingrich candidacy was and is inevitably doomed. But it’s nonetheless the case that his downfall in the Republican Iowa caucuses is due in significant part to a full-scale, Citizens United-enabled attack advertising campaign.

Restore Our Future, the Super PAC tied to the Romney campaign, has spent more than $4 million on attack ads and negative direct mail targeting Newt Gingrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ tabulations. Led by the Romney-supporting Super PAC (and with an able assist from the Ron Paul campaign), the December surge in TV ads attacking Gingrich in Iowa totaled nearly half of the political ads aired last month in the state. Two thirds of money spent in the Iowa caucuses came from the Super PACs rather than the candidates.

Romney’s Super PAC – like those informally affiliated with Rick Perry, Barack Obama and others – is staffed by friends and former staffers. Election rules permit these Super PACs to raise unlimited amounts from the superrich and – thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United – corporations. The candidates may help raise money for these Super PACs. Super PACs must reveal their donors on a monthly or quarterly basis, though they accept donations from nonprofit organizations that are not required to reveal their donors (and argue the practice is legal). The main limit on Super PAC activity is that they may not coordinate their activities with the candidates or their campaigns. But this is a more formal than consequential restriction, since the Super PACs are staffed by those who know well what the campaigns want.

The Iowa results illustrate on the national stage what became apparent in the 2010 elections: Post Citizens United, the massive funneling of corporate and superrich money to independent organizations is not just going to favor pro-Big Business candidates. It is going to introduce a new level of viciousness and attack advertising, and remove some of the basic accountability from elections.

That’s because while everyone disparages negative advertising, it works. And attack ads from unaccountable organizations with no real membership work best of all. At least candidates who run negative ads must pay a reputational price for running nasty ads; the independent campaign groups don't care about their reputation, so aren't susceptible even to this modest form of accountability.

As the New York Times says, Mitt Romney has “outsourced” his negative advertising to Restore Our Future. Newt Gingrich can complain about negative advertising all he wants, but Romney is not going to be much tarnished by the activities of an outfit called Restore Our Future.

Iowa is just a harbinger of what Election 2012 is going to look like. And it’s not just the presidential race where the effects will be felt; in Senate and House races, and in state and local elections around the country, laundered corporate and superwealthy money threatens to dominate the airwaves and the election debate.

Outside groups reported spending $300 million in the 2010 elections (though the total spent was surely much higher) and exerted huge influence. But $300 million is going seem paltry compared to 2012’s spending. Karl Rove and his Crossroads organizations have announced plans to raise $240 million to spend in the 2012 elections. The Koch Brothers plan to spend $200 million. And there’s no way the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will be outspent by these characters. So, we’re looking at something on the order of three quarters of a billion dollars just from these three corporate-dominated outfits.

All of which presents a simple choice: Accept the further debasement of our democracy, the hijacking of government by giant corporations; or take action to remove the corporate stranglehold tightened by Citizens United.

The way forward is clear, if not easy. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United – the pernicious decision holding that corporations have a constitutional right to spend as much as they choose to influence elections – end corporate spending in elections, and clear the way for adoption of a system of public financing for public elections.

January 21 marks the second anniversary of the hideous Citizens United decision. Public Citizen and allies, including Move to Amend, People for the American Way, Free Speech for People and Common Cause, are working with activists around the country to organize protests and events to build a movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision and restore our democracy. Get information on the movement and day of action at DemocracyIsForPeople.Org – and make sure to join (or organize) a protest near you.

It’s the least we can do for Newt. And ourselves.

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Robert Weissman

Robert Weissman

Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen. Weissman was formerly director of Essential Action, editor of Multinational Monitor, a magazine that tracks corporate actions worldwide, and a public interest attorney at the Center for Study of Responsive Law. He was a leader in organizing the 2000 IMF and World Bank protests in D.C. and helped make HIV drugs available to the developing world.


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