When we think of Citizens United putting our democracy for sale, we think of the Koch Brothers taking over the Republican Party and drowning our elections in attack ads. In fact, back during the 2013 shutdown I argued that the Supreme Court's campaign finance rulings had "backfired" on the GOP because it gave ideologically extreme oligarchs too much control, leaving "a party compelled to carry out a doomed legislative strategy concocted by the party's most aggressive funders."
But this past weekend showed that Citizens United (and the subsequent appellate court ruling in SpeechNow.org that created Super PACs) has scrambled the GOP more thoroughly than I realized.
On Saturday, most of the GOP presidential hopefuls participated in the Iowa Agriculture Summit. But this wasn't some quaint bucolic gathering where salt-of-the-earth farmers get to quiz the next leader of the free world.
The Iowa Agriculture Summit was literally one huge Republican donor and Super PAC backer, who made his millions in hogs and ethanol, demanding the Republican candidates come to him and submit to his questions on a stage in front of the cameras.
And that ethanol magnate, Bruce Rastetter, wants his candidates to support the existing federal renewable fuel standard, which mandates that gasoline refiners mix in a certain amount of biofuels, like ethanol.
Whether ethanol is truly beneficial to the environment is still debated among the left. But putting that debate aside, we're talking about a federal regulation designed to make us less dependent on oil.
Yet when Rastetter snapped his fingers, nearly every Republican hopped to, jetted for Iowa, and assured their patron they would oblige.
Only Sen. Ted Cruz pulled a "Sister Souljah" and lambasted the fuel standard. Gov. Scott Walker, who had previously opposed it, said "It's something I'm willing to go forward on." Jeb Bush said, "The law that passed [RFS] in 2007 has worked, for sure" before suggesting it could be phased out "somewhere in the future." Rick Perry, another past opponent, said "I don’t think you pull the RFS out ... and leave all these other subsidies and mandates in place." Sen. Lindsey Graham said buying ethanol means not buying oil "from people who hate our guts." And Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee had already given ethanol a huge hug before they won the last two Iowa caucuses.
One event organizer beamed to a reporter from Salon.com that the fuel standard did "great. Only lost cause is Cruz."
Walker, having made his first apostasy, is now taking heat from conservative pundits. "Walker's move not only was a deep disappointment to economic conservatives who, based on his record in Wisconsin, see him as a principled supporter of limited government, it also undermines one of the central rationales of his candidacy," argued the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein.
But right-wing pundits and Gadsden flag-waving Tea Party activists don't control Super PACs, and Bruce Rastetter does.
So do the Kochs, who also benefit from ethanol subsidies. Yet the hard-core libertarians have stated their opposition to them and the fuel standard. The Republican oligarchs in this instance are not on the same page.
In turn, the Republican candidates have to do a dance to appease all their paymasters. It appears that they've mostly made the calculation that they can have their cake and eat it too, bowing to Rastetter on the presumption that the Kochs won't punish them for disagreeing on one issue (an issue where the Kochs' bottom line doesn't suffer either way.)
Of course, Democrats also have to tend to a motley crew of donors. But they've yet to submit to such a public spectacle of ring-kissing individual mega-donors.
Republicans insisted it was a First Amendment principle to equate money with speech. Now they must contend with the Citizens United world they fought to create, a world in which cash-hungry Republican presidential candidates let a small community of multimillionaires set their agenda, even at the expense of their other "free market" principles.