This week, casino magnate Sheldon Anderson gave $10 million to the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future. We could talk for a long time about how weird and creepy the name “Restore Our Future” is, but that’s time we could better spend returning our anticipation of the years to come to conformity with our previous expectations. That’s what Adelson is doing. So far, he’s given $35 million to Republican Super PACs this election, and he says he’s prepared to spend as much as $100 million. Twenty million already went to Newt Gingrich, who failed in his bid to become the nation’s first homunculus president. Now Adelson must settle for Romney, who is like the body without the homunculus inside.
That has to be a bitter pill to swallow—for Adelson, I mean, not for Romney. A pill inside Mitt Romney just rattles around like a damn Tic Tac. During the Republican primaries, Adelson was the main funder of Winning Our Future, the Super PAC that produced scads of political advertisements attacking Romney and Bain Capital. Bain was a despicably mercenary operation, whereas Adelson made his money from casinos, and he was bitterly against the former Massachusetts governor. Now that Romney is the nominee,* however, Adelson is bitterly for him.
You can guess where I’m going with this. Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court case that enabled Adelson to spend $100 million on a presidential election, held that restrictions on political spending constitute an infringement on free speech. That makes a kind of sense: I spend (very little) money to publish Combat! blog, and I should not have to report that money as campaign donations just because someone detects my subtle leftward bias come November. Of course, campaign finance laws have never been used to restrict such publications—mostly, they restrict monetary contributions—but the point was that they could. Hence the oft-quoted simplification that Citizens United makes money speech.
That’s a functional equivalence, and as long as we’re employing functional equivalents we might as well note how Adelson’s behavior gives the lie to the court’s assumption. Fact: Adelson gave his $20 million to Gingrich earlier this year with the express purpose of beating Mitt Romney, whom he called a timid alternative. He has now thrown his money-speech behind the candidate his previously contributions expressed a desire to defeat. That’s okay; people change their minds all the time, particularly in politics, and they speak vehemently against the same man they later embrace. Probably, Adelson just wants a Republican—any Republican—to win.
That’s problematic, though. Functionally, Adelson’s money does not express an idea. It only expresses a political preference along party lines, which sounds a lot more like a campaign contribution than speech. Romney for President is technically separate from Restore Our Future, but that distinction is absurd; the Super PAC wants a Republican to win the election, and there is only one Republican running. (Ed.: screw you, Ron Paul!) The thicket gets thornier when you consider that Adelson has given several hundred thousand dollars to various other federal candidates. Is it reasonable to assume that all of these contributions were motivated by admiration for the particular candidates? Or is it more likely that the sole content of his money-speech is “Republicans?”
That’s the charitable way to look at it: that Adelson’s donations are functionally closer to campaign contributions than to speech, since their unifying characteristic is one party’s candidates. The less charitable perspective is that Adelson is not buying campaign speech at all; he’s buying influence. He has donated to multiple candidates in multiple federal elections. Financially at least, he is an acknowledged kingmaker in conservative politics. If his candidates win, will he be frozen out of a Romney White House and a Republican Congress? Or will he, as the most powerful backer of the party that controls the federal government, become a powerful man in that government himself?
Surely, such men were a problem before Citizens United v. FEC. Rich people have bought influence throughout American history, to one degree or another. The same can be said of people with great ideas—another way in which money and speech function similarly in a democracy. The phrase “marketplace of ideas” is not arbitrary. Consider, though, how Sheldon Adelson made his money. His casino did not amass small amounts of ideas from people all over the country who came to Vegas to talk. He is surely a smart man, but he did not build his millions on the strength of his insights. He ran a faro game, and now he is among the most important people in one of our nation’s two political parties. Fine constitutional distinctions aside, that is probably not how we want America to work.