White House recalibrates: Axelrod now puts focus on lack of disclosure when it comes to conservative groups' donations

There was a very heated exchange between former DNC Chair Howard Dean and GOP strategist Liz Cheney over on Face the Nation. Read some of that here:

HOWARD DEAN: One of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever was John Roberts’ — this notion that you can — corporations are people. That’s not — it’s not in the Constitution. Whatever happened to strict constructionism? Nowhere in the Constitution says a corporation is a person — nowhere. This — this — this is one of the worst cycles I have ever seen because of the amount of money in an off-year election. It’s appalling.

LIZ CHENEY: Well, it’s a worse cycle from your perspective I’m sure Governor Dean because of the massive amounts of — of money, because the Republicans are able to mobilize more money than the Democrats. George Soros—

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): From people like Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): George Soros--

HOWARD DEAN: We don’t want the right wing buying elections.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): You just want the left wing--

HOWARD DEAN: And that’s what’s going on here.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): You just want the left wing buying elections.

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): We don’t want anybody buying elections.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): --which was a big backer of yours, Governor Dean. So I think that, you know--

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): Who was a big backer of mine?

LIZ CHENEY: George Soros, MoveOn.org.

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): No he wasn’t. No he wasn’t a big--

LIZ CHENEY: Governor Dean, I think that the notion--

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): --neither — neither was MoveOn.org, as a matter of fact, just to set the record straight.

LIZ CHENEY: Yeah. Well, the notion, Governor Dean, that somehow people don’t have the right to express their political views under our Constitution--

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): They do in public, not in anonymously.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): --by contributing--by--

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): And cooperations don’t have that right.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): --the Constitution doesn’t say that. The Constitution says you’ve got the right to Freedom Speech. So then--

HOWARD DEAN: The Chamber of Commerce has become an arm of — finance arm of the Republican Party.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): Do you have evidence?

HOWARD DEAN: It’s ridiculous.

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): Governor Dean, do you have evidence that any foreign money from the Chamber of Commerce is going into the American election right now.

HOWARD DEAN: That is not the issue. The issue is we have a right to--

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): Well, that’s what David Axelrod--

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): --we have a right to know if foreign money is going into the--

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): --and the President of the United States thinks that’s the issue.

HOWARD DEAN: And we have a right to know if foreign money is going--

LIZ CHENEY (overlapping): That’s not the charge the President has made.

HOWARD DEAN (overlapping): We don’t know and we ought to know. And we have a right to know what the Koch Brothers are doing. We do know how much money Rupert Murdoch of Fox gave — two — two and quarter million dollars between the Chamber and the RGA. This is — this is

a sick thing. And, you know, the Tea Party people don’t like this either. That’s one of the things about the Tea Party people. They think corporations have too much influence in American life and they do. And this is going to have a real fix of campaign finance reform. Citizens United was an outrage.

I'll be curious if the American public does get concerned about that. Howard Dean said the Tea Party doesn't like big corporations having undue influence. Is that correct? Since they are considered the hottest movement in American politics, it would be interesting if after the election their member groups would take this up as an issue.

A week ago on CBS's Face the Nation, White House political strategist David Axelrod was challenged by host Bob Schieffer after he alleged that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was using foreign money to finance an effort to beat Democrats this November.

The venerable host responded to Axelrod's claim simply by asking if that was the best the White House had to offer undecided voters on why they should vote for Democrats.  Karl Rove and others had a field day in calling the complaints weak, while the Chamber said that there was absolutely no proof that the allegations were accurate.

So Axelrod came back to the cable news chat circuit on Sunday with an argument that might have more resonance — that is, the lack of accountability this year in determing the funding sources for issue-oriented ads, for which most of the money is coming from conservative groups (like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS) that aim to slam Democrats.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said it will spend as much as $75 million in this election cycle, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, combined with the amounts spent by other conservative groups, amounts to over $300 million, vs $100 million being spent by Democratic groups like unions directly on ads.

For years, critics of the campaign finance law known as McCain-Feingold (essentially eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens case this January) have argued against limiting the amount of money that can be spent on elections (the current maximum for individual spending on a single candidate in federal elections is $4,600), while arguing for transparency, where one can go on the Internet and immediately read who has contributed to a candidate or cause and how much they've contributed.

But that isn't the case right now. While individual donations are capped, corporations can give unlimited amounts, and nobody knows who's giving what.

As the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten wrote in a column last week, it's not only the Citizens United case that has opened a brand new floodgate of corporate money, but also a change in the tax code.

The other was emendation of the tax code to allow creation of so-called 501(c)(4) political action committees to which donors can contribute anonymously. Such organizations are supposed to make less than half of their expenditures for political purposes. But the definition of "educational" activity is extremely squishy, and organizations are able to lump a lot of things that look like blatant politicking under that umbrella.

On CNN's State of The Union, Axelrod had a spirited back-and-forth with host Candy Crowley.  Crowley asked if Axelrod was just being selective in his outrage, since there are Democratic-aligned groups spending millions on behalf of Democrats whose donors are also unknown.

Axelrod: These funds, Karl Rove's group said they're going to plunk down $50 million in the last three weeks of the House races. That's more than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will spend in the entire cycle. So these secret special interest funds will have a louder voice in the last three weeks of this cycle than the Democratic Party did throughout the cycle.

There's something fundamentally wrong with that. And if they don't want to disclose who their money is coming from, there's a reason for that. And the reason is, they don't want to say, this ad was brought to you by Wall Street, this ad was — who wants to repeal financial reform, this ad was brought to you by the health insurance industry who wants to repeal health insurance reform, this ad was brought to you by the oil industry that doesn't want to have to be responsible when they leak oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

CROWLEY: If these Democratic groups who say they simply are unable to raise this kind of money in this particular environment, that Democrats particularly on the liberal side who are prone to give big money into some of these independent Democratic-leaning groups are just not doing it this year, if you had that kind of money that could go into independent groups, wouldn't you be happy they were using that money? It is totally legal.

AXELROD: Well, look, obviously this gives a huge advantage to Republicans, but this isn't just a threat to the Democratic Party, Candy. If someone can walk into a congressional office and say, if you don't vote my way, the insurance industry or Wall Street, if you don't vote our way, we're going to give Karl Rove $10 million and we're going to blow you away in the next election, what kind of impact is that going to have on our country?

That's why we support a law to disclose all of it, Republicans or Democrats. And, you know, speaking of Mr. Rove, back in 2004, when Democratic groups were spending heavily that election, he complained about that. But all of those groups disclosed where the money was coming from.

We didn't hide where the money was coming from. And yet he said it was a threat to democracy. Well, what about secret funds, funded by special interests? That is a threat to our democracy. And, you know, he may have switched 180 on this when it's to his advantage. I'm going to maintain that it's bad whether it's done on behalf of Democrats or Republicans.


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