The Law of Unintended Consequences dominates politics. Before the 2016 campaign, the leaders of both political parties wanted to limit presidential primary debates—albeit for different reasons.
Reince Priebus, the Republican chairman, made no secret of his conviction that the ordeal of 20 debates in the 2012 presidential cycle weakened Mitt Romney for the fall election. On the Democratic side, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the party, apparently believed that Hillary Clinton would only be opposed by nuisance candidates—and did not want to elevate them with more than a handful of debates.
The result of this plotting by the two party leaders—disaster.
By limiting the GOP debates (and relegating serious contenders to the undercard for ratings reasons), the Republicans inadvertently set up a series of high-ratings showcases built to order for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign (facing a surprisingly daunting challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders) has publicly lamented the lack of debates, which have proven to be Clinton’s best forum.
Debates are just the Appalachian Mountains of miscalculations. To reach the Himalayas of haplessness, you have to go back six years to the Citizens United decision. It is, of course, easy to ridicule the naiveté of the Supreme Court majority that claimed to be confident that disclosure laws alone would be sufficient to protect democracy against the power of unregulated political money.
But the underlying purpose of Citizens United and the similar decisions that followed in its wake was to—stunning revelation ahead—enshrine the power of big money in politics. Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell were certain that an unlimited torrent of money would obliterate the Democratic Party.
We are not talking about principle here, but practical politics. And by these standards, the Republicans were colossally wrong.
In the 2012 presidential race, Barack Obama was more than able to out-raise and out-Super PAC, Mitt Romney and the Republicans. Even in the 2014 off-year congressional elections (which were a GOP romp), the Democrats were upended far more by low turnout among their core voters than by Super PAC money.
The enduring truth is that billionaires—no matter how much they spend—cannot force the political tides to recede. In 2012, the Koch Brothers and the mega-donors backing Karl Rove’s efforts failed to stop the Obama reelection juggernaut. Free-spending liberal Tom Steyer (who dropped $70 million trying to make climate change a winning issue) achieved nothing for the Democrats in the off-year congressional elections.
(The usual caveat paragraph: Super PACs and other forms of unregulated campaign cash undermine democracy in other insidious ways. For example, the Democratic Party’s efforts to match the Republicans in appealing to the billionaire class has helped foster a bipartisan tilt toward Wall Street.)
Rather than deciding national elections, Citizens United has had the perverse result of undermining the political establishment in both parties. Voter backlash against the climate of corruption in Washington has turned 2016 into a year of populist anger that often takes irrational, and even dangerous, forms.
The petrified GOP leadership is now contemplating the gallows-or-the-guillotine choice between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump—who excoriates his rivals’ reliance on Super PACs—is the latest beneficiary of voters trusting a candidate who is portrayed as too rich to steal. Cruz—who revels in being the most hated man in the Senate—has harvested small donor contributions even as he successfully courts the Super PAC barons.
Without the big bucks bacchanal inspired by Citizens United, it would hard to imagine Sanders storming the barricades. Even now, it is difficult to grasp the political reality that the 74-year-old leftwing senator (depending almost entirely on small donor financing) could defeat Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sanders violates every norm of Democratic politics from embracing his socialist beliefs to continually using words like “radical” and “revolution.” At the core of his political argument is a passionate denunciation of the America’s “corrupt campaign finance system.”
In response, Hillary Clinton has been highlighting in her stump speech a call for a possible constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. (Reality check: Hillary never explains how as president she could miraculously win the two-thirds majority in Congress to even send the amendment to the states for ratification).
Never in modern politics have the populist brigades stormed the castles of both parties at the same time. Other issues play a major role in the upheaval: immigration on the Trump-Cruz side and Wall Street bailouts for Sanders supporters.
But, as much as anything, it is rage at the political power of money that has turned 2016 into a year of rebellion. For, to borrow a favored expression from Bernie Sanders, voters understand that Washington has become a “rigged game.” And—in ways that may topple the establishment—they are determined to do something about it. That has turned into the true legacy of Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that may be enshrined in the history books under the heading, “The March of Folly.”
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.