Friday, March 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In 2006, when the Club for Growth almost purchased a seat in Congress for Sharron Angle, the barely victorious Dean Heller was not amused.
“The Club for Growth bought the race in Michigan, and they are spending $1 million to try to buy it for Angle here,” Heller Campaign Manager Mike Slanker said shortly before Heller eked out a primary win. “It is a sad commentary on representative government when people can be elected who are bought and paid for by people outside their district.”
Such was the effusion flowing from the Shelley Berkley campaign this week as it tried to embarrass the reconstituted Heller-Slanker team into agreeing to a ban (that neither side could enforce) on outside spending such as the 2006 extra-Nevada money that almost defeated the congressman-turned-senator.
Of course, Team Berkley didn’t point out that four months before Slanker’s statement she had voted against a measure to reduce the amount of money going into 527s, which sprouted through the loopholes in McCain-Feingold, because it might have limited the likes of George Soros from helping Democratic causes. But now that Soros West (or is it Right?), aka Sheldon Adelson, might want to put a fortune into a super PAC, no worse and in some ways better than 527s, to defeat Berkley, her tune has changed.
The cynicism here is breathtaking and is especially obnoxious coming on the heels of Berkley’s misguided campaign to force Clear Channel to fire Rush Limbaugh because he is a sexist pig. Yes, Slanker’s comment is silly and a reflexive response to the Club for Growth, which has as much right to spend money here as does SEIU or American Crossroads. But does that mean Heller should be importuned by Berkley’s media campaign to sign the pact to “free Nevada”?
Berkley’s campaign stunt will be greeted with yawns by most sentient beings. And Heller will resist the call, not so much on principle but because he likely believes GOP groups — and perhaps Adelson — will pour money into the state to help him.
But this, like hypocrisy, is not a partisan issue; it is about free speech, and, as I have written before, I wish politicians would stop wailing about it.
There is no moral high ground here, only a slippery slope. I didn’t hear Berkley lamenting the outside spending in 2010 when a group helmed by a former Harry Reid spokesman bloodied up Sue Lowden in the primary and then sliced up Angle in the general to help the majority leader survive. That was an outside group trying to buy an election, as Berkley fulminated this week, so I wonder why she didn’t speak up in 2010. Yes, I am suffused with wonderment.
Maybe Berkley isn’t afraid of Adelson, for whom she worked in the 1990s before ideology severed their relationship. But he tried to beat her in her first congressional race in 1998, and he is likely to be after her again, perhaps aided by another rich guy named Steve Wynn. With no equivalent wealthy benefactors ready to come to her aid, Berkley may be correct that stopping outside money is to her political benefit.
But she is wrong — as much of the media have been — about super PACs, which are subject to more disclosure rules than the 527s she voted against limiting six years ago. (For a primer, see this).
There will always be a way around any campaign finance law, as John McCain, Russ Feingold and countless other putative campaign finance reformers have found. Whether it’s the First Amendment or the seminal Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, no statute will ever be able to stop our political system from being awash in money. And no one in power ever really complains, unless it is to seek partisan advantage.
Thus, Democrats, who lamented the Rovian tactics in 2010 and have made apocalyptic murmurings about Citizens United, have formed their own super PACs for this cycle. All outrage in politics is situational.
But if there are important principles at stake and Berkley really wants to sign a pact with Heller to make campaigns better, why stop at banning outside money? Some suggestions:
1. “I’ll agree not to run any negative ads if you will, too.”
2. “I won’t accuse you of being in the pocket of Big Oil if you won’t accuse me of supporting ‘Obamacare.’”
3. “I won’t accuse you of trying to ‘end Medicare as we know it’ if you won’t accuse me of supporting ‘the failed stimulus.’”
4. “I won’t say you are engaging in a ‘war on women’ if you won’t bring up the president or Harry Reid.”
As inane as these ideas are, too, perhaps we should get behind them. Why? Imagine how quiet the next eight months would be.