07/31/2015 07:43 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For: Citizens United and the GOP

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You have to be a real NFL junkie or an embittered Philadelphia Eagles fan like me to remember the name: Norman Braman.

Braman is a billionaire businessman who owned the Philadelphia Eagles from 1985-1994. The former Philadelphian now lives in Florida and was in the news recently announcing his support for the presidential campaign of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, vowing to spend as much as $10 million of his own money to pump up Rubio's campaign.

This news ought to send chills down the spines of Rubio supporters because, as any Philadelphian will remind them, it was Braman who hired Rich Kotite as Eagles' head coach. Kotite inherited a good Eagles team and in six seasons ran it into the ground. (He then went to the Jets where in 2 seasons compiled a 4-28 record). If Kotite is any indication of Braman's ability to pick winners, Rubio is doomed.

Whether or not Norman Braman knows how to evaluate talent, however, his bankrolling of Rubio's campaign helps explain why the GOP presidential jousting has descended into a 16-ring circus. What we are seeing is the unintended -- and thoroughly ironic -- consequence of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case.

There is no question that Citizens United was a partisan effort decided by the Court along entirely partisan lines. The Republican plaintiffs argued that spending political money was the same thing as exercising political speech and thus could not be restricted. Chief Justice Roberts agreed. The political rationale for pursuing the case was pretty cynical: Republicans who have lots of money wanted to be able spend it without limit in order to shape the outcome of elections.

Political scientists will be quick to point out that there is no data that demonstrates a causal connection between spending money and winning elections, and President Obama's electoral triumph in 2012 in the face of a tidal wave of cash would seem to suggest that buying elections isn't so easy.

In fact, though, Citizens United has created a new dynamic within the Republican Party. Call it the politics of plutocratic patrons, and at the moment it is causing the GOP to eat itself alive.

It works something like this: With the caps lifted on spending, any candidate who can find a wealthy patron can make a perfectly credible run at the nomination. Rubio found Braman; Rick Santorum, who has been a political irrelevancy since his now-legendary "Eye of Mordor" speech in 2006, is being backed by multi-millionaire ultra-conservative Foster Friess. And all Republican hopefuls make pilgrimages to Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, prostrating themselves before these billionaires like supplicants at an altar before they put themselves in front of voters.

The winners in this politics of plutocratic patrons are, naturally, candidates who would otherwise have no hope of being taken seriously but who have caught the fancy of some free-spending plutocrat. The plutocrats themselves, of course, wind up as winners too, because they function as the new political dons, setting the terms of the political debate.

The big loser here, however, is the Republican Party itself as an organization and political institution. Without forcing the point too strenuously, I think it is fair to say that over the last fifty years the GOP has usually nominated the candidate who had been standing in line longest -- the guy who had paid his dues to the party and been patient. Like Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bob Dole in 1996 and Mitt Romney in 2012 (he, of course, had to wait 4 years because in 2008 John McCain had been standing in line longer). Even Ronald Reagan, who was an insurgent when he ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, transformed into a loyal party functionary by 1980.

In the Citizens United era, candidates can skip the party altogether and advance to go by finding a patron willing to spend enough cash. Rubio again provides a useful example of this transformation. Rubio's career was launched because Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida, took Rubio under his wing and acted as his political sponsor. Rubio then threw Bush over by deciding to run for the nomination this year. After all, why be loyal to an ex-governor when a billionaire car-dealer has promised to pay your bills?

The Republican Party is riven by ideological and policy disagreements to be sure. But the money that Citizens United has unleashed is causing the party itself to lose control over its members and its message. Republicans cheered the Citizens United ruling in 2010. Now they have it to thank for the spectacle of Ted Cruz calling Mitch McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate and Donald Trump leading in the polls.

Be careful what you wish for.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author most recently of Americans Against the City: Antiurbanism in the 20th Century.