Did the Conservative Supreme Court Dash Romney's White House Hopes?

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By opening up the campaign-finance system to super PACs, the justices enabled Romney's opponents to hang on and severely weaken him.

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American politics is generous with ironies. But here's one to savor. Our Wild West campaign-finance system -- deregulated by the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and embraced by Republicans for both ideological and strategic reasons -- may be dousing the party's hopes to win the White House.

Mitt Romney's innovative use of a campaign super PAC has done him great service. The Restore Our Future PAC has raised tens of millions of dollars from a selection of elite donors, and produced the attack ads that have bludgeoned his rivals, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

But it's that same unbridled campaign finance system that lets Gingrich and Santorum remain in the race, despite their organizational shortcomings and personal flaws.

In days of yore (like, as recently as 2008) a string of losses would discourage donors, dry up funding and force a longshot candidate from the race. But in the new campaign era, there is no greater asset than a very rich friend. In Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and a few donors like them, Gingrich and Santorum have precisely those sort of deep-pocketed pals.

And so the Republican primary campaign drags on -- like a "political death march," as GOP strategist Ron Bonjean has memorably put it. The candidates hopscotch around the country, tearing each other down and adopting extreme positions to appeal to the conservative base, thus alarming independents and foregoing opportunities to focus fire on President Obama.

Organizational liabilities -- like the failure to get on the ballot or compete for delegates in key states and congressional districts -- are papered over with super PAC money, allowing the long shots to keep campaigning.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The Supreme Court's Citizens United case, and a subsequent federal-court decision informed by Citizens United called Speechnow v. FEC, were supposed to favor Republicans because they lifted limits on giving by corporations, wealthy individuals, and other traditional GOP donors.

The fiscal issues that dominate the national debate -- taxes, debt, regulation -- were seen "as an agenda in which the interests ... aligned with the Republican Party have more at stake," says Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert from Colby College. Republican congressional leaders and conservative pundits rushed to defend the Supreme Court, and to praise the Citizens United ruling.

But the unintended consequence of letting those millionaires and billionaires give unlimited money to candidate super PACs has been a divisive, costly primary race, which now threatens to go on, and on, and on.

"These parallel campaign organizations" -- the super PACs -- "have allowed these candidates to stay in the race," says Corrado. "Essentially a couple of big donors have kept them going."

There may be more surprises ahead, says Trevor Potter, one of the nation's top campaign finance lawyers. Who knows but that some billionaire will decide to drop $10 million, or $100 million or even $1 billion by Election Day, shattering expectations and predictions?

Americans "have not fully grasped the different environment," that we are in, Potter told a gathering at the Brookings Institution Thursday. "It only takes one billionaire ... to change the equation entirely."

Image: Reuters

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John Aloysius Farrell is the author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned and Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. He is currently writing a book on Richard Nixon.

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