Last night, the Obama campaign announced that it would not “unilaterally disarm” in the face of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing a flood of unlimited corporate campaign spending and paving the way for unaccountable Super PACs. In an email to supporters, the campaign emphasized that President Obama opposes Citizens United and supports strong action “by constitutional amendment, if necessary” to roll back its license for wealth individuals and corporations to buy elections.
In a perfect world, the president’s campaign would never make this announcement, and Obama’s supporters should not be naïve about what this means. When casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife spend $10 million in an attempt to buy Newt Gingrich the presidency, it is impossible to imagine that Adelson isn’t also buying himself special access to the president in a Gingrich Administration. Likewise, when big oil companies pump $1.2 million into Mitt Romney’s Super PAC, it is impossible to imagine that they don’t expect some quid for their pro quo. President Obama is somewhat immunized from this kind of influence buying because, as a second term president, he won’t need to worry about needing his big donors again to get reelected. But, at the very least, every policy a second term Obama supports that benefits a big dollar supporter will now open him up to allegations of corruption.
Ultimately, however, President Obama made the only choice he could. In 2008, all presidential candidates spent a record setting $1.7 billion during their campaigns. Yet this amounts to less than one fifth of what Exxon earns in three months, and it is less than 8 percent of Adelson’s massive fortune. If just one major corporation or modern day viscount decides to go all in against Obama, they could effectively drown out the president’s ability to complete in this election. The American people deserve a choice in 2012, not an auction attended only by big money Republicans.
It’s important that the Obama campaign does not decide that last night’s decision requires them to stop campaigning hard against Citizens United and the flood of money it has injected into our system — especially because his opponent will certainly advocate for a very different vision of how democracy should work. This must include throwing his full weight behind state ballot initiatives and legislation that will mitigate the harmful effects of the Supreme Court’s decision until the day when that decision can be overruled.
Indeed, the 2012 election may be America’s last chance to fight the Supreme Court’s attempt to place elections up for sale to the highest bidder. Obama’s likely opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, doesn’t just believe that “corporations are people,” and he hasn’t simply pledged to appoint more Supreme Court justices who support Citizens United. Romney actually believes that billionaires should be able to write unlimited checks directly to his campaign — one of the few limits on influence buying that the Supreme Court has not yet gotten around to destroying.
By 2017, when the winner of November’s election will step down, three sitting justices will turn 80. Justice Ginsburg, one of the four dissenters in Citizens United is both the oldest justice and a cancer survivor. If a President Romney has the opportunity to replace just her, it could entrench Citizens United for a generation or more. Conversely, if President Obama can replace just one member of the majority in that case, he could eradicate this blight upon the Constitution and ensure that no future president needs to base his campaign strategy on how hard the likes of Sheldon Adelson is breathing down the back of their neck.
So President Obama didn’t just make the right decision, he made the right decision for people who believe that American democracy cannot be sold to the highest bidder. His decision to play upon the uneven field the Supreme Court laid for him is also America’s best chance to ensure that no candidate will play this same rigged game again. None of this will take away the cloud his decision will raise over a potential second term, but the blame for that cloud rests firmly in the laps of five Supreme Court justices.