Karl Rove Just Can't Let Go

How the Republican strategist rationalizes the failure of big money to sway the presidential election

Eric Thayer/Reuters

Campaign financier Karl Rove and campaign finance reformers share a common, post-election dilemma. The failure of Citizens United corporate spending and individually funded super PAC's to produce a Republican White House and Senate confounded their respective hopes and fears. Facts collided with ideology. Will they now interpret the facts to suit their ideologies, or reconsider their ideologies in light of the facts?

It's practically a rhetorical question. Reality testing has suffered high failure rates in recent years, especially in the political sphere, so it's not surprising that, in general, Rove and the reformers are standing up for their biases and beliefs and staring down the facts.

Rove is spinning wildly, relying on irrelevant facts and arguments: Obama won by a smaller popular margin than in 2008, he stresses; (never mind that Romney won fewer votes than McCain.) Crossroads and its progeny gave the President a run for his money, he explains, and I imagine Republican donors responding, "So what?" Obama "suppressed" the vote with negative advertising, he asserts, desperately, but with a straight face.

Reformers (with some exceptions) are either rationalizing the election results or ignoring them. Two days after the election, hard-liners at freespeechforpeople.org celebrated the "important milestone" achieved on election day. What milestone? Not the failure of Rove and company's independent expenditures to buy the election, which a populist group might interpret as a victory for the people's common sense. That, it seems, was not cause for celebration (or acknowledgment.) The milestone they extolled was progress toward a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United by denying corporations the constitutional rights of "natural persons." (freespeechforpeople.org remains undeterred by the fact that its proposed amendment would deny all small and large businesses and charities their 4th amendment rights against warrant-less raids, as well as their speech rights.)

Not all aspiring reformers are this fanatical. Some acknowledge the failures of Republican expenditures but attribute them to circumstances particular to 2012: Obama enjoyed structural advantages. Advertising rates are lower for candidates than for independent expenditure groups, which meant that the President didn't have to equal the resources arrayed against him. Republicans fielded self-defeating extremists in several Senate races. (Why don't reformers take solace from evidence that money can't elect weak candidates?) And, whether or not massive expenditures succeed in winning particular elections, reformers argue, they distort the electoral process, requiring candidates to devote themselves to fundraising -- talking and listening to small numbers of wealthy donors instead of ordinary voters, who are alienated by the fact that money talks.

The money race is distasteful, of course; the access enjoyed by rich people is worrisome, although its effect on policy is difficult to quantify. Money flows to candidates through many channels, apart from campaign contributions: Lobbyists confer on legislation; companies bring jobs to one legislator's district, or another. This isn't an argument against restricting campaign contributions; it is, however, a reason to diminish expectations about what restrictions might achieve.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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