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Why the left is blaming John Roberts for unleashing wealthy donors

Debate over impact on democratic process



The Next Letterman?

Why the Left Is Blaming John Roberts for Unleashing Wealthy Donors

I can remember in the Watergate era when tycoons would deliver suitcases full of cash to the Nixon campaign—and it was perfectly legal.

That may have helped shape my view of the corrosive effect of money on politics, and it led to the reform legislation that the Supreme Court has now taken another step toward dismantling.

The high court’s 5-4 ruling allowing a single donor to contribute to an unlimited number of candidates and groups was embraced on the right and vilified on the left. And much of the liberal ire has been directed at John Roberts.  

What we have here is a fundamental clash between those who see donations as free speech and those who see them as corrupting government.

And, to take a Clintonesque view, it all depends on the meaning of the word corruption. Because that takes many forms in Washington, and it doesn’t all involve outright lawbreaking.

Are political donations covered by the First Amendment? If so, why do any limits (such as how much a donor can give to an individual candidate) pass constitutional muster?  

Obviously the ruling favors Republicans, who have more deep-pocketed donors than the Dems, which is why Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich and other 2016 wannabes were in Las Vegas last week to try to wow Sheldon Adelson.

But few are asking the question, is this really such a big deal? The court already opened the floodgates for more PAC spending with its 2010 Citizens United ruling. This week’s decision could prove to be more incremental.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick makes the liberal case—and zeroes in on the chief justice:

“Without even acknowledging that it is doing so, the Roberts Five has overturned 40 years of policy and case law, under an earnest plea about the rights of the beleaguered donors who simply want to spend $3.6 million on every election cycle. But the opinion also offers up such a supremely cramped notion of ‘corruption’ as to rely almost exclusively on the quid pro quo bribery favored in the Gilded Age, wherein robber barons casually left fat sacks of cash around in exchange for political influence. Roberts has not been historically blind to the effects of public outrage on the legitimacy of the court; indeed, some have argued that this was the reason for his vote in the health care cases.” (Which, by the way, saved ObamaCare.)

But, she says, “Roberts honestly seems to inhabit a world in which what really worries the average Joe about the current electoral regime is not that his voice is drowned out by that of Sheldon Adelson, but that he might be forced to spend his millions ‘at lower levels than others because he wants to support more candidates’ or that he is too busy making billions of dollars at work to volunteer for a campaign, or that he has Jay Z and Beyoncé on standby to perform at a house party in the event that his billions are tied up elsewhere this week.

“Really, it’s weird. The man takes the Metro to work, and yet he handily dismisses what every human American knows to be true: That if dollars are speech, and billions are more speech, then billionaires who spend money don’t do so for the mere joy of making themselves heard, but because it offers them a return on their investment.”

Emily Bazelon, also at Slate, builds on that argument:

“Roberts justifies his decision to kill the aggregate limit by refusing to see ingratiation and access as corruption, which he defines down to mean only bribery. Congress can still regulate campaign donations to protect against quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption—actual tit for tat. But what’s really going on here, as Justice Stephen Breyer points out in his dissent, is Roberts taking a few seemingly unimportant lines from Citizens United, the 2010 decision that opened the door to unlimited campaign donations by corporations and unions, and turning them into unquestionable support for his new slimmed-down definition of corruption.” 

The conservative case is argued by National Review Editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico:

“Every time the Supreme Court rules  in favor of the First Amendment in a campaign-finance case, the left recoils in disgust.

“The court’s 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is the latest occasion for the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth…

“In unison, the left pronounced itself outraged. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who had $11 million in his campaign treasury as of December 2013 — despite being a senator for life, called the decision ‘another step on the road to ruination.’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has enough of a fundraising surplus that he was able to buy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry for his donors from his granddaughter, resorted to a thunderous non sequitur in denouncing the decision: ‘All it does is take away people’s rights because, as you know, the Koch brothers are trying to buy America.’

“The First Amendment is for strippers, flag burners, pornographers, funeral protesters and neo-Nazis, but not for people trying to give money to political parties or candidates. They are a suspect class, marked out as a threat to democracy because they want to participate in democracy.

“In his decision for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that contributing to a candidate is political participation just like volunteering for a campaign or urging others to vote. As such, it is an exercise of the right to political speech and association.”

The New Republic acknowledges that Armageddon is not at hand:

“In reality, the case may not have a huge impact on elections.”

But then goes on to make the liberal argument: “What is striking about the opinion is how completely off-base Chief Justice Roberts is in his understanding of the role of money in politics.” 

Whether the decision was wise or not, anyone who understands Washington knows that big donors have more access to officeholders, more influence on legislation and regulation, and in some cases are in line for ambassadorships and other plums. That, too, is a form of corruption, although one that can probably never be outlawed.

The Next Letterman?

The speculation sweepstakes is under way for who will replace Dave after yesterday’s surprise announcement that he’ll give up the “Late Show” throne next year.

Even though he was consistently beaten by Jay Leno—and man, did they have delicious feuds—it’s hard to overstate Letterman’s impact on the late-night culture during his 31-year run. He was also the most openly liberal of the network comics, and this often came out in his interviews.

With the last member of the old guard preparing to step aside at CBS, and with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel ensconced at the other networks, who will attempt to fill Dave’s shoes?

The New York Times’ Bill Carter reported two years ago that Craig Ferguson has “what amounts to a ‘Prince of Wales’ clause, giving Mr. Ferguson the right to inherit the late-night show in the 11:35 p.m. time period should Mr. Letterman decide to leave.” But as Carter noted, a network can just pay the aspiring prince to go away, as NBC did when it picked Leno over Letterman to take over for Johnny Carson.

Could CBS be interested in the demo-friendly Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? And could either of them work for a broadcast network at 11:35 pm?

Letterman broke the news during a taping of his show, saying:

“The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance.  And I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.’”

At 66,  and with a salary somewhere around $30 million, I guess he’s earned the right to exit the stage on his own terms. 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.