Those of you who read and listen to the actual news, as opposed to what is peddled as news in the right-wing-propaganda mills, may be unaware of the scandal that threatens to turn Barack Obama into the new Richard Nixon. There is a scandal here, all right, involving an alleged Obama “enemies list,” but naturally it isn’t what conservatives say it is. It’s that the right wing is trying to use the existence of this utterly boring nonscandal into a justification for moving to an even more reactionary and pernicious position on campaign-finance reform, with the excuse that it’s all the fault of the Constitution-shredding tyrant in the White House. Here’s the story.
This is the world conservatives now want to create—unlimited campaign donations, and we’ll never know from whom. That’s the goal.
There is an Obama campaign-affiliated website, I suppose written by some mid-level aides in Chicago (because high-level aides do more important things than this), called the Truth Team. The site has a blog and other features dedicated to exactly the things you’d expect: correcting Romney and other GOP misstatements and lies, spinning the news in the usual positive ways, and so on. Then there’s one page on the site under the rubric of something called keepinggophonest.com, that went up on April 20 and lists eight “high-dollar and special-interest donors” to the Romney campaign. Of course it presents these men unflatteringly—a few are outsourcers of jobs, one paid a hefty fine, another is a bitter foe of gay rights. The page doesn’t tell the visitor to do anything—like click here to tell Mitt Romney you’re taking a stand against this or that. It just lists the names with one short (and not positive) paragraph about them. It was one post, on a blog that puts up roughly one post a day every work day (so in other words, 42 posts ago).
Before we go any further, let’s consider the actual Nixon enemies list. Emanating from within the White House and at the highest levels—it was drawn up by special counsel Charles Colson—the list had two important qualities, indeed the two qualities that made it a shocking thing in the first place. No. 1, it was secret. No. 2, its stated (privately, of course, not publicly) purpose was to use the machinery of the state to bring harm to these people—or, as a John Dean memorandum once put it, to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” I might add a third point, now that I think of it. The Nixon list eventually ran to hundreds of people from many walks of life, people who were obviously no serious threat to Richard Nixon’s political career, unless you think Joe Namath or Carole Channing or Dr. Michael DeBakey stood ready to accept the directives of the SDS and lay Dick low.
So what do these things have to do with each other? In real life, nothing. But apparently, some of the eight men on the Obama list have, since its publication, faced some harassment. Nothing I’ve read make it exactly clear from whom—bloggers, activists, “people.” I guess we can call this unfortunate, overenthusiastic, whatever. But to the right, it’s much more. To the right, of course, Obama is supposed to be responsible for every act that every blogger or activist or person commits in his name. And so, in turn, this amounts to intimidation, even violence—and reflects, of course, the Chicago-thug style politics to which we (well, they, in their fevered minds) have become accustomed. A new enemies list. Even Nixon would blush. I kid you not. And this isn’t limited to places like The Daily Caller and The Wall Street Journal. Last Friday, the country’s highest-ranking Republican, Mitch McConnell, gave a speech about this alleged atrocity.
This whole thing is utterly insane. I loved these sentences, from a Heritage Foundation blog post: “There are subtle differences between Obama’s and Nixon’s enemy lists. President Nixon kept his secret, and allegedly used the force of the government to punish adversaries. President Obama’s list is open and designed to elicit public scorn, shame, and rebuke. There is no current evidence the president has manipulated the federal machinery punitively.” Yes, subtle differences all right—in other words, one was an enemies list, and the other isn’t. Aside from that, they’re exactly alike.
McConnell’s speech was astonishing. Now you might be wondering something here. Remember in Blazing Saddles when Cleavon Little asked Alex Karras, “What’s a high roller like Hedley Lamarr care about Rock Ridge?” What’s a high roller like Mitch McConnell doing slopping around in this kind of mud?
Here’s what. A long time ago, back in the days of McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, conservatives opposed it but offered their alternative: no money limits on anything, but immediate disclosure. This was made allegedly even more attractive as the Internet grew. We can have immediate disclosure, conservatives would say—essentially on the same day a contribution comes in. That way it’s all out in the open.
The Supreme Court agrees. Not just the liberals, and not by 5-4. In 2010 the court upheld disclosure of the names of petition signers in Washington state by 8-1. One justice wrote: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Yep, that was Antonin Scalia.
Scalia or no, conservative legislators have since started rethinking their earlier position. Mark Schmitt, in this fine New Republic piece from a couple of weeks ago, goes into some of the reasons why, starting with the retirement—in both cases forced—of the cosponsors of the GOP alternative campaign-finance bill, Tom DeLay and John Doolittle (yes, the major piece of GOP legislation on campaign finance in the past decade has the delicious name of DeLay-Doolittle).
And now, here we are in the Citizens United era, when all bets are off in terms of contribution limits. So now they’re thinking, why exactly did we concede that disclosure point? Then along comes this list. Some of the people on it get hassled. “Hey,” they think, “this can serve as a great pretense for eliminating disclosure requirements altogether. If a donor is going to have someone going through his public records, we can call that intimidation, thuggery—and yeah, let’s throw around the phrase ‘enemies list.’” At a public event I moderated Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Constitution Society, a leading conservative campaign-finance expert actually tried to argue that advancements in technology made disclosure potentially dangerous to donors.
So this is the world conservatives now want to create—unlimited donations, and we’ll never know from whom. That’s the goal. Trying to gin up a blog post into an enemies list is merely a device, a handy way to try to attain the goal. There is no enemies list. There is only, as usual, a lie, and a vast propaganda machine pushing it.