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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama, the Super-PACs and the Future of U.S. Democracy

In her WaPo op-ed “A make-or-break moment for democracy,” Katrina vanden Heuval takes a clear-eyed look at President Obama’s approval of Super PAC spending for his re-election, and comes up with a compromise most progressives should be able to endorse. As vanden Heuval explains the dilemma facing Democrats:

President Obama’s decision to endorse super-PAC money as part of his reelection effort exposed the enduring divisions within the progressive community between pragmatism and idealism. Robert Reich, for example, put his disappointment bluntly: “Good ends don’t justify corrupt means.” Jonathan Chait disagreed, writing that “if you want to change the system, unilateral disarmament seems like a pretty bad way to go about it.”
The ambivalence is palpable — and understandable. I’ve felt it myself. On the one hand, we are seeing our worst fears realized. When the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United decision, the concern was not just that one party would take advantage of it, but that both parties would decide they had to adapt to it. The president has never held high moral ground on campaign finance (he withdrew from public financing in the 2008 campaign) but his willful, if reluctant, decision to submerge himself further in a system that actively stains our democracy is troubling.

Troubling yes, but unavoidable as a practical matter, vanden Heuval believes:

And yet, I understand his decision. I even reluctantly agree with it. I remember how massively George W. Bush outspent Al Gore in 2000, both during the campaign and the recount. I remember the price that John Kerry paid for staying within the campaign finance system in 2004, leaving him exposed to the Swift Boat attacks in August as he tried to stretch his public allotment over three months instead of just two.
There are times when you cannot win with one hand tied behind your back, when you cannot fight fire only with a philosophical opposition to fire. This is surely one of those times…

And the available remedies are limited:

…The Roberts’ court’s warped decree leaves us only two long-term exit routes from this growing disaster: pass a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United or shift the balance of the Supreme Court. The first will be difficult under any circumstance; the second will be impossible if Obama isn’t reelected.
After all, Obama’s loss will likely mean Mitt “Corporations are people” Romney will ascend to the Oval Office. Romney doesn’t believe in campaign finance laws of any kind, really; he has defended the Citizens United decision and supports unlimited contributions to candidates themselves. His Supreme Court picks would, at best, solidify the anti-reform regime on the court. At worst, they would tilt it further to the right, enshrining for generations the notion of the sale of democracy to the highest bidder….

“Should the Obama campaign really sit passively and allow Karl Rove to distort our election results again?,” asks vanden Heuval. The only sane answer is “no.” But she also urges corrective action from the President and progressives:

…If he is going to endorse the use of super PACs, then he should endorse, as a central plank of his campaign, the fight to end them forever…The president seems to understand this. It was heartening, for example, to see him come out in favor of a constitutional amendment to reverse the damage.

“President Obama has identified this election as a “make-or-break moment for the middle class,” notes vanden Heuval. “It surely is. But it is also a make-or-break moment for our democracy….It’s up to us now to push him…Pragmatism, after all, yields only temporary solutions; our long-term course must be guided by larger ideals.”

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