Plouffe’s Way Forward on “Citizens United”

Apologies for the very late post.

Let’s set aside the legal questions raised by Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, last month’s Supreme Court ruling that permits corporations to spend for political advertising  out of their general treasury, on the theory that such expenses somehow qualify as an analogue to personal speech. Whatever we think of this ruling, the public doesn’t seem to like it at all:

Eighty-five percent of the Democrats polled were opposed to the ruling, while 76% percent of Republicans and 81% of independents also said they were opposed. The nearly unanimous opposition crosses more than just party lines.

Despite this, Republican leadership has been uniformly positive on the issue. One example:

Mitch McConnel (R-KY): Any proponent of free speech should applaud this decision. Citizens United is and will be a First Amendment triumph of enduring significance.

This is an issue, interestingly, that threatens to ripsaw Congressional Republicans between their burgeoning (?) populist (??) base, and their vested corporate interests. Thankfully, and for once, it’s an opportunity Democrats don’t seem likely to let slide. At a fundraiser for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (R-NY) yesterday morning in midtown Manhattan, David Plouffe, newly re-appointed to Obama’s political team, noted poll numbers on Citizens United, and underscored to the audience the importance of the fact that almost as many independents as Democrats oppose the decision. Pushing the issue could highlight the difference between true “populism” — premised on distrust of big actors, be they government or industrial — and mere grassroots conservatism, winning back right-leaning independents in the process.

These possibilities for recouping or winning political capital aright are increased by the likely method of Congressional attack. From OpenCongress, a draft bill designed to limit the holding’s imact would forbid, outright, certain entites from spending money on federal elections, including:

  • companies with at least 20 percent foreign ownership
  • government contractors
  • companies that received and have not paid back TARP funds

The bill also:

  • requires CEOs to appear on camera and say they approve the ad their company is funding
  • requires more disclosure of political spending from corporations, unions and 527s
  • provides a reduced ad cost and equal airtime for candidates facing a corporate ad buy
  • prevents corporations from coordinating ad spending with candidates and political parties

Without getting in to the law, such restrictions are likely to be sustained as either (1) reasonable time/place/manner restrictions on the exercise of free speech, or (2) limitations reflecting increased or exaggerated federal interests, thus permitting regulation where it would otherwise be foreclosed. And the requirement that CEO’s personally endorse their corporate ad buys is just immensely politically satisfying, expressing a truly populist desire for accountability and truth in messaging. Will it work? We’ll see. But that Democrats are for once thinking about grand strategy can’t hurt.



  1. Yet again, I wonder: why are they proposing legislation and not amendment to counter a ruling on Constitutional grounds?

  2. Becuase one has a chance of happening, while the other does not :). I agree an amendment would be better, but as I think you pointed out a while ago, it’s a really complicated thing to mess with, and the political realities are terrible.

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