Barack Obama and the policies that flowed from his 2008 victory are motivating conservatives itching to move the country rightward.
George W. Bush and his ideology that drove the nation’s economy into the ditch is the dead elephant in the room so many of his fellow Republicans would just as soon have us ignore.
And then there is Richard Nixon and the wads of secret cash that poured into his 1972 re-election campaign.
While Obama is moving some voters on the right and Bush is the lesson we’re not supposed to recall a mere two years after a near financial collapse, Nixon (or, more accurately, the Nixon method of campaign financing) is the monster that’s back from the dead.
In 1972, Nixon’s campaign was propped up by a host of anonymous donors, both corporations and individuals. “Contributors,” as campaign-finance reformer Fred Werthheimer recently recalled for The New York Times, “were literally flying into Washington with satchels of cash.”
The sources and amounts were only known by a tight circle of administration insiders, many of whom would become household names only after the Watergate scandal exploded Nixon’s second term in office.
That well-cataloged abuse of presidential power and campaign-finance rules put the nation on a course to reign in this awful threat to democracy — the ability of the wealthy to buy their way into the halls of power to the detriment of most citizens.
Donor limits and full disclosure were the new buzzwords. All sides of the political spectrum could agree on a simple premise: We should know who gives and how much. Connecting the dots between policy and generous donations would be up to diligent watchdogs.
The system hasn’t been perfect. Like the forces of nature trying to invade a well-secured home, big-money contributors have worked to find cracks in the system so they can spread their influence.
The worst blow came in a January decision by the conservative activist justices on the Supreme Court. Dissenters predicted the Citizens United ruling would open the floodgates to loads of corporate and union cash into the political system. The predictions appear to be correct. The Center for Responsive Politics, according to spokesman Dave Levinthal speaking on NPR’s On the Media program last weekend, has identified 10 shadowy organizations that have each spent at least $20 million.
Watchdogs estimate that the total spent for the 2010 election might go as high as $4 billion. Outside groups might account for a half-billion, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Nobody can say for certain until the election is over and the cash is completely counted.
We do know that those donors, both secret and public, want something for their generosity.
We also know that the sort of secret fundraising that permanently scarred Richard Nixon’s reputation is happening in 2010. There is a huge difference, though. Now it’s legal.