The Distorted Vision of Partisan Eyes

Elephant and Donkey rock formations and people from both sides of aisle shaking hands

To many across the nation, politics is a team sport. To these die-hard fans, every call against their team is because of a biased ref or ump and every opponent is an evil low life steroid-taking fraud who skipped the first two races of the Triple Crown. This team sport mentality helps explain the passion, knee-jerk reactions and lack of rational thought that frames many of our political debates. Having spent close to 38 years in Washington working for non-partisan institutions and organizations, and having represented conservative, progressive, Republican and Democratic clients, I also know that there are many who believe that ensuring the integrity of the game is the best form of team loyalty and strive to ensure the game is played fairly and by the rules. Despite what some of those who disagree with our positions occasionally claim, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is one such organization. Since ideologues and true believers have trouble comprehending how such a group can exist, it may be helpful to provide some facts about the CLC:

  • CLC is a nonprofit organization representing the public interest in proceedings involving money in politics, disclosure, political advertising and enforcement issues before Congress, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and state and local government bodies and agencies.
  • CLC is open and transparent about its mission, philosophy and agenda. You may not agree with us, but you know where we stand.
  • CLC is also transparent about its funding and discloses on its website all donors over $200. Among its largest funders is the Stuart Family Foundation in Chicago (the founder and longtime President was a former CEO of Quaker Oats, RNC Committeeman from Illinois and Reagan Ambassador to Norway).
  • The leadership and staff of CLC are made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents. CLC’s president was the general counsel for the Republican nominee for president in 2008. While individual staff of CLC may (or may not—we don’t ask) have partisan preferences, they believe in the organization’s mission and are able to put those preferences aside.
  • CLC is nonpartisan and has filed complaints with the FEC, IRS and DOJ against Republicans and Democrats. It does not make political contributions or support candidates or political parties.

As part of its mission, CLC engages those who disagree with its analysis of the role of money in politics, its legal arguments or its strategies. That debate takes place in the courts, at public events, in the press and on the web. While many want to debate the merits of the issues, there are those who only see CLC through partisan lenses and resort to ad hominem attacks, cherry-picked factoids, misdirection and statements of “fact” that are just not true. The reason is simple; it is much easier to call names and make hysterical claims than it is to address the merits. The attacks on CLC, as well as many other campaign finance reform groups, frequently run along the line that we are liberal, leftist, Democrats who answer to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, George Soros, and union bosses, and are working with the IRS and DOJ, all with the goal of trying to destroy the First Amendment rights of anyone who disagrees with the Democratic/liberal/socialist agenda to which we have all pledged allegiance.

The most recent example of these tactics comes courtesy of James Bopp, a lawyer who has devoted much of his career to ensuring those with the most money have the loudest voice in our democracy. Mr. Bopp recently posted an odd comment on the Election Law Listserv in response to Roll Call’s Political MoneyLine Blog, Super PAC for Campaign Finance Reform Swallowed by Fat Cats. (Posted 6/4/14). The blog is about how the Mayday SuperPAC, which has a goal of stopping the influence of big money in politics, has received more than a million dollars from a few donors and hopes to receive pledges of $5 million or more. Being a SuperPAC, it reports it donors, some of whom the blog named. So far, all is fair. But Bopp then goes off the deep end in a comment.

Let’s see now, Super PAC for campaign finance reform funded by Fat Cats and “reform groups,” like Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, Brennan Center, et al, started and funded by the wealthiest foundations, ie Pew, Carnegie and Joyce etc, and enormous multinational corporations.

Shouldn’t we Follow The Money! Jim Bopp

It’s actually difficult to figure out his point. It is possible he intended the statement about CLC and other groups funded by foundations to be unrelated to his statement about “Fat Cats” funding the Mayday SuperPAC. But since the blog on which he is commenting doesn’t mention CLC, any of the other reform groups or the foundations, it is an odd non-sequitur, even for a rant. Rather, the simplest interpretation is that Bopp is accusing the CLC and the other reform groups of using funding from the foundations to fund the SuperPAC. If that is his point, or even if he just wrote the sentence so it could be read that way and he can deny it was his intent, it accuses the groups of violating the law and is untrue.

Of course, saying the “the statement is untrue” only tells the half of it. Speech asserting something as fact, whether dealing with a candidate, an issue or an organization, does not come into existence on its own. It is the product of a conscience decision on the part of the speaker to make the statement. Whether CLC funds Mayday SuperPAC is not a matter of opinion. Therefore, to be clear, James Bopp is not telling the truth.

Unfortunately, he is not alone, though many are much more direct and coherent in their false allegations. There are people and groups on the right, left and in the center who reduce the debate to name calling, lies masquerading as suggestions (“I’m only asking the question”) and unsourced rumors (“Some are asking the question”). It gets them noticed and is red meat for a certain segment of potential donors.

The dilemma for groups subject to this type of attack is whether and how to respond. If you do respond, you give them credibility and possibly raise their profile, while there is little chance that you will change the minds or tactics of these groups or convince the true-believers it is a lie. In fact, to some, the very lack of proof is proof of a conspiracy. On the other hand, if you don’t respond, it becomes part of the background narrative and some of the misinformation may eventually become part of the mainstream discussion. In our interconnected world, a false statement repeated often enough can gain credibility just from repetition and some will begin to assume there has to be some truth to the picture being painted.

So, it is valuable to occasionally take the time to respond to some of the more absurd attacks. In this case, it is a simple response. James Bopp’s statement (or even suggestion) that CLC funds Mayday SuperPAC, or that there is any connection between the SuperPAC and CLC, is false. That’s the truth.

If anyone has any other questions, please feel free to ask. You don’t have to make a contribution for us to talk to you. (Of course, contributions are gladly accepted.)

Larry is the former general counsel of the FEC and an expert and adviser on campaign finance and ethics.