Democrats have a real problem with their base voters. Heading into a contentious midterm election season in which the party faces headwinds and the increasingly likely prospect of losing control of the Senate, this condition is forcing the “in-party” to act in a peculiar and erratic fashion.
President Barack Obama rendered the judgment of Solomon over the weekend when he decided to save vulnerable red state Democrats a headache and postponed the issuing of an executive order which would have extended legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. While a handful of embattled incumbent Democrats are breathing easier today, a number of progressive activists, liberal lawmakers, and immigration groups are hyperventilating.
This decision will only exacerbate the problems Democrats have mobilizing their traditionally unenthusiastic base voters to turn out in a midterm year. To satisfy the wounded liberal ego, Democrats in Congress are turning to another progressive bête noire in order to gin up some enthusiasm among their supporters: That pesky First Amendment to the Constitution.
Yes, the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights has been driving Democrats nuts ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, which would have prohibited the airing of a corporately-financed documentary critical of Hillary Clinton within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, were unconstitutional. The decision paved the way to allow corporations, unions, and other groups to spend unlimited sums on political speech and advocacy. To prohibit such activities would constitute a violation of the First Amendment.
Ever since this decision, Democrats have misled their voters into believing that it could be reversed. Liberal lawmakers promise their constituents the world in the form of a constitutional amendment which would limit the political spending of corporations, unions, and other associations. This pipe dream is favored by Democrats, even those who know quite well that the president’s party will not be able to marshal the support of two-thirds of the House or the Senate to pass such an amendment, much less get 38 state legislatures to ratify it.
Nevertheless, the Democrat’s base mollification efforts require that they continue to delude their core supporters. On Monday night, Senate Democrats will hold a procedural vote to take up amending the Constitution in order to limit the protections provided by the First Amendment.
Self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) published a statement Monday extolling the virtues of the amendment he co-sponsored. Notably absent from his press release was any acknowledgement that this losing battle would be waged with the aim of limiting the Constitution’s protections on free speech, assembly, and the unobstructed practice of religion.
“Billionaires buying elections is not what our Constitution stands for,” Sanders said in that statement. “The major issue of our time is whether the United States of America retains its democratic foundation or whether we devolve into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires are able to control our political process by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent their interests.”
The release cites the January, 2010 findings of a Democratic pollster, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, which found that 80 percent oppose the effects of Citizens United. This result is similar to what other pollsters found, but Democrats are only fooling themselves if they think the public will support any constitutional amendment that curtails the First. Even those who truly believe Citizens United is an assault on Democracy understand, as evidence by their refusal to state plainly what it is they are seeking to amend, that the public will not tolerate an approach to campaign finance reform which throws out the baby of 1789 along with the bathwater.
But even the Senate Democrats’ stated rationale for this latest gambit is flawed. Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, conservative attorney Ted Olson noted that Citizens United, and the Court’s related decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, have not allowed for the abuses which Democrats routinely claim are ongoing.
It is also a canard that Citizens United permits organizations, as Mr. Reid claimed in May, to “dump unseemly amounts of money into a shadowy political organization.” The court explicitly left untouched the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties. Citizens United also upheld disclosure requirements, the very opposite of shadowy.
McCutcheon struck down the aggregate limits on the amount an individual may contribute during a two-year period to all federal candidates, parties and political-action committees combined. Mr. Reid’s denunciation of McCutcheon in April because “all it does is take away people’s rights” is preposterous. People’s rights to participate broadly in the political process are enhanced, not taken away, by the court’s ruling. McCutcheon did not overturn the limits on how much individuals can give to a particular politician’s campaign, which remains at $2,600 per federal election.
The critics also ignore that Citizens United and McCutcheon make it easier for the unions on which the Democrats rely to spend money on elections. Unions outspent businesses by more than 2 to 1 in 2013. If money corrupts, then one would expect Mr. Reid and his colleagues to condemn the “corrupt” influence of unions in politics. And these Democrats presumably would brand liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s pledge to commit his political-action committee to spend $100 million to defeat Republicans in 2014 as especially corrupting—but Mr. Reid has instead welcomed the support.
Where are the nation’s pundits on this proposal, which would be dangerous if it were not so clearly ill-fated? Why is it that the Democrats’ problems with their base never seems to merit the kind of handwringing that is inspired by the GOP’s grappling with an unruly grassroots? We are often told that the nation is in dire need of comprehensive immigration reform, and Republicans in the House continue to thwart it for purely political reasons. Does the nation not need the First Amendment whole and intact? And could the doomed effort to amend it also be characterized as having been inspired by cynical political concerns? The answers to these questions are obvious, and the pundit class does themselves a disservice by pretending the public does not see hypocrisy in the reluctance to address them forthrightly.
The Democrats are scrambling. They have a real base problem, and are willing to offer the Constitution up in sacrifice in order to address it. That’s one hell of a narrative, which is exactly why you won’t hear it anywhere in the political press.