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.
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. There are baseball fans who despise the designated-hitter rule in the American League, but would any of them fault the Yankees for abiding by it?
The question before us isn’t about symbolism. It’s about how to rid the system of this flood of money, how to prevent our government from being auctioned. There are useful remedies to mitigate some aspects of the current secret, unaccountable deluge of outside funding from the corporate one percent: public funding of elections, which would empower small donors; shareholder accountability; increased disclosure, and reform of the Federal Elections Commission. Free TV time for candidates and parties would be a very useful reform. But 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. And while the president does not sign off on constitutional amendments, it is almost impossible to have one ratified over the entrenched opposition of the White House.
Nor should we forget that if President Obama is defeated in November, the massive, uncounted — and unaccountable — negative attacks from right-wing super PACs will be a big part of the reason. Should the Obama campaign really sit passively and allow Karl Rove to distort our election results again? The contrast between Obama and the GOP could not be clearer. In fact, there is only a single similarity: They are both willing to use super PACs while super PACs are legal.
I don’t mean to suggest that the ends justify the means. But I don’t think that it’s hypocritical to play by a set of rules you want to change. Still, the president shouldn’t assume that those accepting his decision are embracing it. And those accepting the decision shouldn’t let him off the hook. 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. If he doesn’t, the alternative to unilateral disarmament won’t be mutual disarmament; it will be mutually assured destruction.
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. But there’s still much more to be done.
The truth is, this is bigger than Citizens United. This is about a fundamentally broken system that desperately needs a comprehensive plan to fix it. So the president’s support of a constitutional amendment has to be the first step in a plan for concrete action and a campaign for pro-democracy reforms of all kinds.
President Obama has identified this election as a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.” It surely is. But it is also a make-or-break moment for our democracy. He just made a difficult, and risky choice. It’s up to us now to push him, so that no president can make that choice ever again. Pragmatism, after all, yields only temporary solutions; our long-term course must be guided by larger ideals.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”
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