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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Look at it this way: at least the 2014 midterm elections are over.

Maybe the most clueless pronouncement ever made by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice was Anthony Kennedy’s comment in the 2010 Citizens United case arguing that unlimited “independent [campaign] expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Not even secret donations by free-range tycoons hiding behind fake “charitable” groups with names like Citizens for Cute Kitten Videos. Because when Scrooge McDuck dumps a truckload of bullion into a political campaign, it’s not because he wants anything in return. It’s all about the public good.

Also, the justices ruled, because money is a form of speech. Scrooge needn’t even disclose spending $50 million on TV ads claiming that a candidate seeking to prevent McDuck Industries from dumping liquid cyanide into backyard swimming pools has a hidden history of torturing kittens.

That would be a violation of Scrooge’s First Amendment right to free speech: exactly like a law forbidding you, dear reader, from posting a comment calling me a mangy dog. How could anybody think otherwise?

If only the Supremes had ruled that speech was a form of money. That’s one I could have endorsed.

Metaphysical absurdities aside, the clearest effect of Citizens United has been to make people more contemptuous of politics. “This fall,” writes New York Times columnist Tim Egan, “voters are more disgusted, more bored and more cynical about the midterm elections than at any time in at least two decades….just 29 percent of the electorate said they were ‘enthusiastic’ about voting this year.”

And those, I fear, are mainly the crackpots. Where I live (Arkansas) the easiest way to avoid toxic political arguments during this election season is to pronounce anathema on the lot. Nobody argues with you (except my sainted wife, who tends be dreadfully earnest about these things).

Particularly resented is the ceaseless barrage of TV commercials that has made watching local news broadcasts hazardous to mental health. Ordinary citizens simply don’t know who, if anybody, to believe. The easy option is to believe nobody, and to quietly yearn for the return of the shouting auto dealers and discount furniture pitchmen.

Alas, that reaction’s exactly what McDuck Industries wants. To fix the problem will apparently take a constitutional amendment stipulating what should have been obvious to a powerhouse intellect like Justice Kennedy: that money’s definitely not speech, it’s power.

And that apportioning and delimiting power is what the U.S. Constitution is all about.

Another unfortunate aspect of the 2014 campaign has been the temptation to portray it as a national referendum on President Obama. The news media’s Cult of the Presidency sustains the ongoing melodrama and affirms their own self-importance.

Historically speaking, almost every president’s party loses power in sixth-year midterm elections—perhaps as it begins to dawn upon starry-eyed supporters that the country’s in as big a mess as ever. Thus what the Washington Post calls “Obama’s journey from triumphant, validated Democratic hero to a political millstone weighing on his party’s chances.”

It happened to Ronald Reagan in 1986 and to George W. Bush in 2006, and it would probably have happened to Bill Clinton in 1998—booming economy notwithstanding—if the fools hadn’t impeached him.

It’s particularly likely when a large number of Senate seats are being contested in states that the president lost two years earlier—definitely helping McDuck Industries identify which races to target.

Consider Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor drew no GOP opponent in 2008, but finds himself confronted with McDuck-financed Rep. Tom Cotton, whose entire campaign consists of repeating “Obama, Obama, Obama” like a cockatoo.

It’s apt to work, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett writes “because of an irrational aversion to President Barack Obama and Obamacare, the local application of which is saving hospitals, insuring hundreds of thousands of poor people, holding down premiums and saving the state vital money in its Medicaid matching.”

Arkansas, however, ain’t America, only a provincial one percent of it. What’s more, the “irrational aversion,” sad to say, has ancient roots.

Otherwise, two thoughts:

First, Obama is not as unpopular nationally as frontrunning news media pretend. As Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert points out, despite misleading headlines about “plummeting” approval rates, the president’s actual numbers have consistently held in the low- to mid-40s—not good, but nothing close to the mid-20s achieved by George W. Bush.

Secondly, along with Obamacare, improving the health and security of millions, he’s greatly improved the economy, controlled budget deficits, and added 5.5 million jobs, reducing unemployment to 5.9 percent.

In foreign policy, sure the Middle East remains a godawful mess. But when wasn’t it?

Maybe Paul Krugman laid it on a bit thick in Rolling Stone, calling Barack Obama “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”

Nevertheless, barring unforeseen disasters, the president’s claims are substantial.

Photo: Brendan Hoffman via Flickr

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