How McCutcheon Could Come Back to Haunt the Republican Party

Just as liberal judges trapped 1970s Democrats in a "soft on crime" paradigm, conservatives on the Court will make it harder for the GOP to shake a reputation as the party of plutocrats.

When my kids were younger, I loved to roughhouse with them. For a while, we’d all have fun. But then I’d get tired and want to stop, only to realize, to my dismay, that they were just getting started. I’d created something I could no longer control.

Something similar sometimes happens with political parties and the Supreme Court. In the early decades of the 20th century, conservative Republican presidents appointed conservative Supreme Court justices who went on to strike down chunks of the New Deal. For Republicans, this turned out to be a problem. To adapt to a political environment transformed by the Great Depression, the GOP needed to stop rigidly opposing federal intervention in the economy. But the Supreme Court wouldn’t stop, and Franklin Roosevelt shrewdly used the justices as his political foil. Republicans had created something they could no longer control.

A few decades later, something similar happened to Democrats. In the 1950s and 1960s, Democratic (and some Republican) politicians appointed justices and lower-court judges committed to expanding civil liberties and civil rights. But by the 1970s, American politics had shifted to the right. Democrats suddenly needed to show they were tough on crime and respectful of traditional morality. Judges, however, kept pushing a liberal agenda, thus giving Republicans ammunition to use against their Democratic foes.

Today’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission suggests that we’re likely seeing this same dynamic again. On the surface, McCutcheon—which strikes down limits on the overall amount an individual can give to candidates—and its 2010 predecessor, Citizens United—which ended restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions—may seem like good news for the GOP. In 2012, after all, Mitt Romney received almost 80 percent of his campaign funds from the kinds of big donors the Supreme Court has now liberated to give even more. The Obama campaign, by contrast, received only half its funding from large donors. And the single donor who has so far shown himself willing to give the largest sums of all—Sheldon Adelson, who in 2012 spent at least $100 million—is firmly in the GOP camp.

But Obama won anyway, in part because he raised so much in increments of less than $200. And in part because he successfully painted Mitt Romney as a rich guy, surrounded by other rich guys, who couldn’t understand the struggles of ordinary Americans. Romney’s private-equity background, and his 47 percent comment, made himself a particular easy target. But the GOP’s country-club reputation remains its single biggest political liability. A February 2013 Pew Research poll, for instance, found that while Americans were six points more likely to say that Republicans have “strong principles” than Democrats, they were 16 points more likely to call the GOP “out of touch with the American people.” A CNN poll this February found that while Americans were six points more likely to say Democratic policies favored the middle class than the rich, they said Republican policies favored the rich over the middle class by a whopping 46 points.

The Supreme Court has now made overcoming that reputation harder. We will now likely witness even more spectacles like last weekend’s confab in Las Vegas, where Chris Christie—a guy supposedly known for his stiff spine and blue-collar roots—publicly apologized to Adelson for having called the West Bank “the occupied territories” (the term long used by the United States government). Last Sunday, Matt Dowd, George W. Bush’s shrewd and independent-minded former political strategist, called it “ridiculous” to think that “trumping out to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of a billionaire casino owner” will help Republicans “get elected president.” He’s right. It confirms the very image Republicans most need to overcome.

The GOP’s increased reliance on big donors also makes it less likely the party will craft new policies that appeal to the blue-collar voters it needs to win. For years, the smartest conservative intellectuals—from Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam to David Frum to David Brooks—have been imploring the GOP to realize that it’s not 1980 anymore. Government power over the economy has declined; economic insecurity has grown. In this new world, Republicans can’t simply promise to get government out of the way. They need to suggest ways government can help people get ahead. And just as Bill Clinton showed in the early 1990s that he was not beholden to the cultural left, Republicans must find ways to show they are not beholden to the oligarchic right. That’s going to be harder now.

In the 1970s, a liberal Supreme Court fueled right-wing cultural populism. Today, a conservative Supreme Court is breeding left-wing economic populism. For the contemporary GOP, the danger of looking like the plaything of America’s super-rich outweighs the benefits of increased support from America’s super-rich. Even in the age of the Roberts Court, winning elections generally requires more than just raising more money. It requires winning more votes.