Don’t believe the gripes: Politicians just love to complain about their opponent’s money

February 5, 2019   •  By Eric Peterson   •  

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner on February 5, 2019.


As the jockeying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has begun, too many pundits are buying into politicians’ self-serving attacks against other candidates’ supporters.

One announced candidate touts her reliance on small donors while loudly rejecting money from PACs related to corporations. Another took a pledge to reject assistance from super PACs and other corporate money. The implication is that opponents who don’t take the same steps are shills who are bought by “big money.”

But the press coverage these pledges generate often relies on — or falls prey to — the complexity of campaign finance law, with the effect of making the ordinary seem nefarious.

Candidates saying no to ” dark money?” That’s not a bold decision by the candidate; it’s the law. “Dark money” groups cannot give money to candidates in the first place. Federal law bans contributions from corporations or unions to candidates.

Nor are these groups as scary as the label. “Dark money” is a pejorative term given by those who don’t like nonprofit organizations supporting or opposing candidates. Such groups include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even more absurd than the “dark money” claims is the notion perpetuated in some coverage that candidates are promising not to take super PAC money. Again, candidates are prohibited from accepting any direct funds from these groups. Meanwhile, asking super PACs not to speak out on their own is tantamount to telling citizens to shut up.

That’s because a super PAC is simply a group of people who come together to urge fellow Americans to cast their votes for or against candidates. Because such PACs can’t give money to candidates, they are not subject to the contribution limits that restrict how much regular PACs may raise from each donor. Telling super PACs to stay out of your race is simply asking citizens not to speak in our democracy. That, of course, is their right, but citizens who want to speak are free to ignore the plea.

What about rejecting corporate donations? Again, that’s what the law requires, not a choice candidates makes for themselves. Corporations are prohibited from giving money to federal candidates, despite what some people tell you about the Citizens United decision. Corporate PACs, which can contribute, don’t take corporate funds, only the voluntary donations of executives, employees, stockholders, and their families. Candidates who reject corporate PAC money are asking groups of Americans, whose donations are publicly disclosed and subject to contribution limits, to just shut up.

As candidates begin to attack each other for what group of people donated to which candidate, or what group is speaking out in favor of who, it’s important to remember what the law provides. It’s also important to remember that much political rhetoric is self-serving — simple virtue signaling and tribal politics. What kinds of donors are good for democracy? Why, the candidate’s supporters, of course. What donors are bad? Their opponent’s.

As the primary plays out, voters and journalists would do well to approach these claims with skepticism. Participating in campaigns or supporting independent groups is good for democracy, and we should all remember that.

Eric Peterson

Eric Peterson