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.

Expectations are, however, practically demolished by the failed 40 year history of reform. Campaign costs steadily rose and independent groups proliferated before Citizens United, despite federal bans on independent corporate and union expenditures. Citizen advocacy groups were muzzled. Still, a strong majority of Americans oppose the Citizens United ruling and favor restrictions on campaign contributions by unions, corporations, and independent groups. Putting aside the historic failures of these restrictions shouldn't they have the right to try them out again?

"The real harm in Citizens United is its suggestion that when we spot problems in our electoral system, we are helpless to fix them," Eric Posner argues in Slate, in one of the more sophisticated, post election defenses of reform. Elections are routinely regulated, Posner points out, in ways that benefit some political interests and disadvantage others. Congressional districts are drawn, ballots are designed and voting machines chosen. True, but regulations are also routinely challenged, especially when they threaten fundamental rights and liberties, like political speech rights. Literacy tests were once part of electoral regulatory schemes too.

So were Pennsylvania's recently enacted voter ID law before it was successfully challenged in court shortly before the election and Ohio's ultimately unsuccessful effort to limit early voting. Strong majorities of American support voter ID laws, having "spotted" voter fraud as an electoral problem that ID laws would fix. But I doubt that liberal advocates of campaign finance reform would argue that in the case of voter ID laws, the majority should rule. I doubt they'd urge the Supreme Court to strike down the Voting Rights Act next year, if a majority of Americans opposed it.

But while popular support for campaign finance reforms is not a sufficient argument in favor of them, popular disgust with excessive spending is, oddly enough, an argument against them. At least, it undermines rather than supports justifications for restricting campaign funding and expenditures. Yes, money talks; it does, after all, enable speech, as it enables the exercise of other rights. (If you don't think money enables speech, don't respond to NPR's pledge drives.) But money doesn't drown out the voices of voters or deprive them of the capacity for political judgment. We don't need a constitutional amendment to restrict the flow of money in and out of political campaigns, which would inevitably restrict various forms of political speech, if disgusted voters tune out and restrict money's effects.

I've long wondered at the distrust of people that underlies putatively populist efforts to restrict political advertising. The more you respect voters and assume that they make relatively rational, deliberate choices, the less need you discern to limit the speech to which they're exposed. The fiercest arguments in favor of campaign finance restrictions, with the exception of arguments for disclosure, rest partly on assumptions about voter gullibility. Whether or not those assumptions are valid, reformers should own up to them.