Presidential politics are heating up big time, complicating Congress’ tasks and overshadowing in many ways the policy dynamics in Washington.
For Republicans in Congress, the incentives to work with President Barack Obama to find positive policy compromises are, if anything, even less than they were two years ago, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that he and his colleagues had no interest in finding common ground.
This will make even policies with serious bipartisan support much more difficult to enact. At the same time, if Republican Congressional leaders move toward compromise on issues such as the debt limit, they will face sharp criticism from GOP presidential candidates who are focused on their positioning in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and other key caucus and primary states.
At the same time, the new stage in presidential politics also reminds us that the presidential campaign funding system is badly broken.
One problem is that the structure that has existed since 1976 and that worked very well for decades was not designed to change to fit a new era and needs serious revamping. Despite some bipartisan support for reform, though, it has little chance of being taken up this year.
A second problem is the devastated landscape of campaign finance since the Citizens United decision.
I cannot recall a recent Supreme Court decision that has generated more interest and more dismay. As I travel around the country and abroad, it comes up repeatedly as a disaster in the making. For all its problems, Citizens United at least offered full-throated, 8-1 support for robust disclosure and made it clear that the decision applied only to corporate involvement in independent expenditure campaigns, not in direct involvement in the campaigns themselves.
Now comes Judge James Cacheris, a Reagan appointee on senior status. I guess Cacheris had a senior moment, or actually two of them, with his initial decision and then a reconsideration that reaffirmed, in which he first ignored the Beaumont case, prevailing Supreme Court precedent, that made it clear that corporate money could not be used directly to donate to candidates, and then dismissed the Beaumont case by saying that he could infer that Citizens United overruled Beaumont.
Judicial activism has combined with regulatory failure at the Federal Election Commission, the filibuster and every Republican in the Senate to prevent clear majorities in both chambers from enacting the robust disclosure endorsed by the court, creating an awful dynamic in politics and policymaking.
We will see it in the presidential campaigns, as both parties are scrambling to create 501(c)(4)s to amass hundreds of millions of dollars or more in secret contributions from corporations, unions and billionaires with agendas.
We are already seeing it in big, and corrupting, ways in Congress. I have had conversations with several incumbents in the Senate who are up in 2012 who say the same thing: They can handle any of the several prospective opponents they might face — but all of them fear a stealth campaign, landing behind their lines and spending $20 million on “independent” campaigns designed to portray the incumbent as a child-molesting alien who should be behind bars, not serving in the Senate.