U.S. Politics: Dirty Deeds Done Expensively

Steve Russell

If I were filthy rich, would I invest in trying to buy the government?

You bet I would. That's one reason I favor full, detailed, and instant disclosure. I'm opposed to the one dollar-one vote rule but willing to live with it if all levels of government would use Internet tech to do away with dark money.

I’ll take this opportunity to remind folks that the First Amendment does not apply to tribal governments on tribal land, and that means the one-dollar-one vote rule does not bind tribal governments, which are free to enact spending limits, contribution limits, instant disclosure or any other rule thought to encourage honest elections.

Because I would do it myself while it’s legal, it’s hard to view the buying and selling of politicians as evil. What I would not do is Astroturf—fund a fake “grassroots” organization to do my political dirty work.

The line between the grass roots and the Astroturf is fuzzy. There's nothing wrong with giving your organization an appealing name but there is something wrong with hiding your purpose.... and there's no way government can police that.

Astroturfing is dishonest and therefore wrong but it's beyond the reach of law....full and instant disclosure and shining light all over dark money should diminish the potential return in playing the Astroturf game.

Speaking of buying the government, the Libertarian Party has done what had been rumored and nominated the ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. The question becomes whether they will be competitive, and that has always been a money question. In the time of one dollar-one vote, corporate persons allowed to buy elections, SuperPACs and dark money, the common question of how to fund a national campaign is on steroids.

Now that the Johnson-Weld ticket has passed from rumor to reality, another rumor has floated that the princes of darkness, the Koch Brothers, might throw some money at it. With two successful Republican governors running against the two most hated politicians on the national stage, it would not be terribly expensive to make Johnson and Weld competitive.

Johnson, before the Weld for VP idea was above the wild rumor stage, was polling 10 percent. His numbers spiked when the arithmetic turned against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic contest and Ted Cruz bailed out of the GOP contest, leaving a choice between awful and awfuller. Which is which is a matter of taste, but there's not much controversy about the paradigm outside of loyalists for either of the major parties.

It takes 15 percent to get on the debate stage. When you start at 10, that's doable.

The talking heads are spinning this in Ross Perot terms, but there's a big difference. Perot was a successful businessman in spite of being somewhat dotty and Perot picked a military man for a running mate who turned out to be well past his effective shelf life. Johnson and Weld are both politicians who have governed successfully.

I understand the trope that in 2016 government service is a rap sheet rather than a résumé, but it's nonsense and those who buy it deserve what they get. When the Ben Carson candidacy was a thing, I kept wondering why it never occurred to Dr. Carson that you can be smart and mean well and still not be qualified to conduct brain surgery. Governing is not simple, especially in a federal system, where power is distributed hither and yon.

The upside of a Johnson/Weld ticket is they would be better qualified than Trump and more honest than Clinton.

The down side is similar to Bernie Sanders's socialism. Legalization of marijuana is something Johnson has harped on, responding to Bill Clinton’s claim that he never inhaled with the comment, “I never exhaled.” Weld favors medical marijuana, while some hope he might come around on recreational marijuana.

The Libertarian ticket is OK with legal marijuana, and it’s certainly consistent with their professed values. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia are OK with it. Marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes and decriminalized as a recreational drug by so many state and tribal governments that reporting on which are OK with it is a moving target. I'm OK with it. But is the country OK with it, or enough of the country to win the Electoral College? Should Johnson/Weld become a real threat, look for a reprise of Reefer Madness in 30 second attack ads.

Assuming it can raise enough money and finesse the marijuana issue, why is the Libertarian ticket suddenly viable against the traditional political duopoly?

The Republican Party is in this cycle being punished for its sins dating back to the decision to embrace the fleeing Dixiecrats and empower the evangelical mullahs. The choice of the southern base--where anti-intellectualism is a rule of political survival--combined with Hoovering up unleashed corporate money made the GOP the science denying gang of nutballs it is today.

The Democratic Party has not yet been spanked for the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council and the resulting betrayal of the New Deal. That tragic capitulation gave us Bill Clinton who gave us Don't Ask-Don't Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, welfare "reform" and the Wall Street deregulation that enabled the Great Recession.

Hillary Clinton’s refusal to endorse rebuilding the firewall between commercial banking and investment banking demands of the voters the biggest leap of faith since Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. James Carville was absolutely right with his cute slogan from the first Clinton campaign:

"It's the economy, stupid!"

Still is, and it was the pandering to economic innumeracy of the "Blue Dogs" that directly caused the slowness of the current recovery and drove me out of the Democratic Party. I can tolerate stupidity but I cannot tolerate purposely screwing the country to the end of your own electoral success. An end they did not accomplish, and good riddance, but their DLC enablers are still running things.

As Lawrence Lessig would have demonstrated had Debbie Wasserman-Schultz running the Democratic National Committee as an arm of the Hillary Clinton campaign not torpedoed him, both parties are bought.

That does not mean they are equally evil.

I prefer a pol bought by Google or Apple to a pol bought by Exxon or Phillip Morris but I'd rather kick the corporate and union money back out or, failing that, require instant disclosure when political money changes hands. Disclosure both to the public and to corporate shareholders and union members.

Hillary Clinton to the contrary, bought pols seldom bite their owners. The proposal to make pols wear sponsor patches like NASCAR drivers went nowhere, and the Supreme Court said we couldn’t stop the buying. Instant disclosure is the one defense left for those of us priced out of the market.

So if the Libertarians are able to acquire some of that Koch Brothers dough, what do the princes of darkness want in return? In this rare instance, they appear to be aligned with the majority of voters in that they would be spending money to avoid what they don’t want. As long as they keep their hands and their money on top of the table where everybody can see them, what’s not to like?

Could a newly puissant Libertarian Party kill the two party system? I doubt it, but there would be enough justice in that outcome to minimize weeping at the funeral.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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