Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Willard Mitt Romney: The First “Citizens United” Candidate

It’s all over but the shouting in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Former Massachusetts Governor Willard Mitt Romney, who entered the presidential primary season as the favorite, has effectively secured the nomination despite the fact that he is very much loathed by a substantial portion of the party’s fundamentalist conservative base. For nearly a year, the right wingers thrashed around, desperately searching for a standard bearer, ultimately cycling through a motley lineup of alternatives—Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and finally, Rick Santorum—only to watch each one implode as they demonstrated their laughable unelectability.

The final result should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying close attention to American politics ever since the Supreme Court’s unfortunate Citizen’s United decision in 2010 effectively removed all limits on corporate campaign contributions and handed total control of the nomination process to the big money boys. Despite a couple of rogue billionaires who breathed life into the flailing Gingrich and Santorum campaigns, giving each the resources to score momentary primary victories and prolong the process, Romney was Wall Street’s guy from the very beginning. In the end, he was able to use his deep well of financial support to utterly obliterate the other contenders.

What was particularly striking about this campaign was how, given the strength of the “Anybody but Willard” sentiment within the party, no conservative challenger of any real stature stepped forward to challenge Romney in the first place. Most glaringly notable by her absence was of course the former Governor of Alaska, one Sarah Palin. As her party’s previous vice presidential nominee, and with a rabidly loyal following, Palin would have seemed to have been much better positioned to compete for the nomination than any of those other Tea Party pygmies. The fact that she did not enter the fray is unusual given that vice presidents and vice presidential candidates typically do run for their party’s presidential nomination in subsequent elections, even if they are not always selected as the nominee.

No one other than Palin herself, or maybe a few of her close advisors, knows for sure why she chose not to run, but as the old saying goes: follow the money. My guess is that Romney outmaneuvered Palin in securing the support of an overwhelming percentage of the Republican Party’s big money donors, and that knowing she ultimately would not be able to compete on a level playing field she demurred. Palin may have been the Tea Party’s darling, but that was likely also her undoing. She seemed to really believe the rhetoric about slashing big government spending, and those who profit the most from big government largess couldn’t take a chance that she might actually be true to her word. On the other hand, Romney was one of them, having been a Wall Street player himself. All they needed to do was ensure Willard had the cash to buy a blitz of campaign commercials that ultimately brainwashed enough of the party’s less radical voters into pulling the level for him when it counted.

So now we have what is shaping up to be a truly unprecedented election cycle. Ever since Ronald Reagan ushered in the current political paradigm, every presidential election has been largely decided based upon which party’s base is more enthusiastic about their candidate. In 1980 and 1984, it was obviously Reagan, who triumphed over the last two “reality based” Democratic presidential nominees, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Vice President George H.W. Bush then basked in The Gipper’s glow in 1988, which was enough to put him over the top against the passionless Michael Dukakis. By 1992, the enthusiasm finally swung over to the Democrats, as the young and dynamic Bill Clinton defeated the older, seemingly out-of-touch Bush. Some of the Democrats’ ardor for Clinton had faded by 1996 due to his relentless pursuit of centrism, but he was buoyed during his reelection bid by a soaring economy. By 2000, it was the hard right’s desire to “drink a beer” with George Bush the Lesser that was about the only thing separating him from the colorless Al Gore and pushed him to a dubious victory. The right’s passion for Bush’s war policies then helped him eke out a reelection victory in 2004 over the equally bland John Kerry before the enthusiasm swung back to the Democrats and the young and dynamic Barack Obama in 2008.

But this year? Both parties’ bases are thoroughly discouraged with their candidates. Liberal journalist Robert Sheer pretty well summed up the feelings of many liberals and progressives about President Hopey-Changey last week in an article entitled "Obama by Default," which featured a very tepid endorsement of the incumbent. Even though I vehemently disagree with Sheer that liberals and progressives should vote for Obama again, Sheer’s article is illustrative in demonstrating just how disillusioned many on the left now are with their supposed savior.

This “enthusiasm gap” is directly reflective of the fact that the billionaires are now in position to ensure that whatever petty differences may exist between them, the nominees of the two major parties will always first and foremost represent their interests as a class. In theory, we still live in a representative democracy in which the voting public COULD rebel and choose a true populist who will fight to restore some semblance of economic fairness. In actuality, as long as 90 plus percent of the population is totally distracted by the Hologram and refuses to do even the basic homework necessary to be reasonably informed about the issues, campaigns will continue to be decided in favor of those billionaire backed candidates who can most afford to blanket the airwaves with 30-second sound bite teevee ads and frame the media narrative in their favor.

So where is this post-Citizens United dystopian trend headed? It’s too early to tell for sure. At this point, it does not appear that the enthusiasm gap will yet be wide enough during the 2012 campaign to cause the whole political system to begin to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. By 2016, however, after four more years of gradual economic collapse putting ever more pressure on the working and middle classes, things could really start to get interesting.

Bonus: The future is NOW


  1. I'd be curious to see the numbers on elections. If you could add up direct and indirect campaign spending, what percentage of the elections are won by the highest spender? My suspicion is that might not be as high as one might think because I'll be a lot of campaigns are actually pretty equally funded, so that other factors become more important.

    That said, I bet the story would be different if one looked at spending differential. I'll bet spending has a huge effect when there is a large differential, and the bigger the differential, the bigger the effect. You might not even have to use spending, just the overall amount of money available, because it is entirely possible that large enough campaign war chests might have a chilling effect on the competition.

    I'm not aware of any site or study that has looked at this, especially starting with the 2010 election cycle, but it would be interesting to see.

    The bottom line... Citizens United basically removed the last vestige of democratic influence on the governance of our Republic. Given that the vast majority of voters will never see or meet a candidate, their opinions are entirely formed by what they read, see or hear in the media. Who owns the media? It sure as hell isn't "we the people". Our choices going forward will, in the end, generally be between two puppets selected by the people with the money and power to do so. Welcome to a Brave New World.