The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has emerged as the bogeyman of the Left this election cycle for allegedly spending foreign money on political campaigns. The Chamber has pledged to spend up to $75 million on political advocacy this year (though it has spent only some $23 million so far), mainly in support of GOP candidates.
ThinkProgress.org has cast the Chamber as public enemy number one. The blog, a unit of the Center for American Progress, alleged last week that because the Chamber accepts nominal dues from its foreign affiliates, it is illegally spending foreign funds on American politics. The Chamber flatly denied the unsubstantiated charge, noting that the funds are used for international operations and that it maintains a standard accounting procedure to ensure that such funds are not spent on U.S. politics. Furthermore, under campaign-finance law, the Chamber cannot coordinate its spending with individual candidates.
MoveOn.org built upon the ThinkProgress conspiracy theory, falsely alleging in a letter to the Department of Justice that the Chamber solicited foreign donations for political spending by hosting a former U.S. ambassador at an event in China to “communicat[e] to them the importance of the U.S. elections.” But that’s not accurate: A description of the event explicitly noted that the official “will not advocate any course of action, but will draw on his White House background to discuss likely consequences of the mid-terms.”
MSNBC host Ed Schultz went so far as to charge that those who accept the Chamber’s explanation are un-American: “If you’re on the side that’s getting all the money, then you keep your mouth shut,” he said last Wednesday. “Well, I challenge you: That’s not American.”
Rep. Tom Perriello (D., Va.) likewise said the alleged activities were “beyond outrageous, to being fundamentally un-American and undemocratic.” Perriello then called on his Republican opponent to denounce the Chamber. Oops. Perhaps someone should tell Perriello that the Chamber has endorsed 14 of his Democratic colleagues and is running ads in support of at least ten of them. Scandalous!
Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) piled on with a letter to the Federal Election Commission demanding a thorough investigation, despite conceding that the Chamber’s activity is “not per se illegal.” That’s lawyer-speak for “legal.”
The notion that a minimal amount of funding from the Chamber’s foreign affiliates — a few hundred thousand dollars, according to various reports — is being used to fund the Chamber’s planned political budget of $50 to $75 million is laughable.
Nevertheless, ThinkProgress bloggers, leading Democrats, and even President Obama think it’s inappropriate to simply “trust” the Chamber’s explanation of its accounting practices. Essentially, they are holding the business group guilty until proven innocent.
Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer recently asked White House advisor David Axelrod, “Do you have any evidence that it’s anything other than peanuts?” Axelrod responded by saying, “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?”
“By waging unsubstantiated rhetorical assaults on his opposition, and then demanding that they prove their innocence, Obama is headed into the domain of demagoguery — maybe even McCarthyism,” White House reporter Keith Koffler wrote in Politico. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board termed Obama’s effort “fear-mongering.” Pat Caddell, an advisor to President Carter, didn’t mince words: “I was the youngest person on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. I take this stuff seriously. What they’re doing is Nixonian — it’s McCarthyite.”
A president should rise above such shallow vindictiveness — especially if he himself has been subjected to rumors about foreign influence. In fact, the current firestorm over the Chamber harks back to a 2008 controversy over alleged foreign donors to Obama’s presidential campaign.
Conservative bloggers broke a story about how the credit-card processing procedure of the Obama campaign allowed numerous donations from foreign nationals to be accepted. Geller and other activists discovered the questionable donations after seeing large contributions from names such as “Doodad Pro” (employer: “Loving,” profession: “You”) listed on Federal Election Commission reports.
In October 2008, when these stories surfaced, ThinkProgress published five posts on campaign-finance issues. Three dealt with the controversy over the Republican National Committee’s purchase of clothing for vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, one addressed campaign expenditures on Palin’s make-up, and another addressed a 1986 letter to Sen. John McCain related to the Keating Five scandal.
It seems that ThinkProgress just “trusted” the Obama campaign. Reporters, though, asked the campaign how the public could know that donations under $200, which need not be publicly disclosed, were not being accepted from foreign nationals.
In essence, the Obama campaign said, “Trust us.”
“Our focus is making sure we comply with campaign-finance requirements,” Robert Bauer, general counsel for the Obama campaign (and now White House general counsel) told National Journal. “We do a very strong job, both with the technology we use and with this very heavy commitment to comprehensive back-end review” (The FEC never audited the Obama campaign to confirm this because the campaign declined to accept public funds).
Nonetheless, according to ABC News, President Obama isn’t in a trusting mood when it comes to the Chamber: “Speaking at a Democratic rally in Bowie, Maryland, the president today suggested, however, that he did not believe the Chamber — and he said this is not just a threat to Democrats but to democracy.”
It’s remarkable that incumbent members of Congress and their supporters, egged on by the president of the United States, would demand criminal and civil investigations of their political opponents on the basis of an uncorroborated blog post.
That’s a lot more threatening than anything the Chamber might do.
– Allison Hayward is the vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to protecting First Amendment political rights.