Does Olympia Snowe really want to be the target of waves of anonymous attack ads in support of some conservative primary challenger? Wouldn't a retiring George Voinovich prefer to leave some shards of our democracy off-limits to being sold to the highest bidder? Could John McCain remember why McCain-Feingold was once of his proudest legacies and acknowledge how profoundly the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision damaged everything he was trying to do to safeguard American democracy?
To prevent the deluge of anonymous political ads we've just witnessed, the Democrats crafted the DISCLOSE Act, which required that organizations involved in electoral campaigning (including both corporations and unions) at least reveal the identities of prime major donors, while barring foreign corporations, major government contractors and financial bailout recipients from making electoral expenditures. Although 92 percent of the public supports disclosure of campaign contribution sources, Republicans unanimously filibustered the bill and it fell one vote short of passage. But if the Democrats make it a priority in the remaining Senate term, they have a chance of achieving its goals. To do so will require reaching out with every conceivable political and moral argument to potential Republican supporters, while mobilizing public sentiment to demand the common sense requirement that if you try to buy an election, you have to at least put your name on your ads.
Before November, Republicans opposed checking the deluge of anonymous campaign contributions due to narrow self-interest. They may continue to do so, even though for years they thundered in favor of transparency as an alternative to campaign finance reform or public financing. "We ought to have full disclosure," said John Boehner in 2007, "full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant." Since Citizens United opened the floodgates for organized money to pour into elections without the slightest check, Republican leaders and their key allies have done everything possible to foster anonymous and untraceable attacks from the shadows.
Yet I suspect that more than a few Republican Senators have their doubts about this process. Do Senators like Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk really want to open themselves up to unlimited anonymous attack ads, where they can't even turn the mud potential primary opponents will be slinging into a potential electoral liability? Embracing these anonymous interests should contradict the basic conservative value of taking responsibility for one's actions, replacing it with an ethic that values only the consolidation of power. Given that these Senators will face significantly Democratic electorates in the future, do they really want to cast their lot with the most predatory financial interests in America? If they do stand up to make these attacks more difficult, this not only protects themselves against being targets, but stakes out ground that can win support from moderate Republicans, independents, and Democrats. Reining in anonymous attack ads from institutions like the bailed-out banks or foreign corporations should also resonate with those elements of the Tea Party and the conservative religious community who even as they mistrust Obama, equally mistrust the financial interests that have left America's economy in its current troubled plight.
It would have been nice had some of these Senators had tackled the problem before the election, instead of just supporting their team. Now, with a bit more space to reflect, they may well wonder whether handing over our elections to competing teams of billionaires is really the best idea. And if they do choose to align themselves with these interests, it's a prime stand for which voters can hold them accountable.
It's also possible that some retiring Republican Senators will have qualms about turning over our electoral future to the likes of BP, Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs, United Health Care and Exxon (not to mention foreign governments, corporations, and sovereign wealth funds). For the first time in years, they won't have to always listen to their contributors, just their own convictions. I'm thinking of people like George Voinovich, George LeMieux, or Bob Bennett. Since it only takes two Republican votes, including the newly seated Mark Kirk, perhaps one of the other saner Republican Senators might respond, like Lindsay Graham, Dick Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, or even John McCain.
But to get two of these votes, the Democrats are going to have to push, with every political and personal appeal that they can think of. Obama will have to push as well, and grassroots groups both nationally and in the states represented by potentially receptive Senators. It's going to be far easier to do this before the new Senate gets in, because the newly elected Republicans are so vastly beholden to the interests who helped buy their seats. So no matter how demoralized we may be, and too many of us are despairing, we need to spell out the stakes as clearly as possible and make clear that we can either keep working for Lincoln's dream of a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." We can't afford to allow that dream to perish by handing over our common future over to those whose dollars can elect whichever politicians they think will most likely do their bidding, or defeat those of either party who oppose them. If we believe the core of our democracy is worth preserving, we have to give this issue our best shot.
Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times newly updated after 100,000 copies in print), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to subscribe to Paul Loeb's articles see www.paulloeb.org.