This past weekend, Karl Rove accused President Barack Obama of creating an “enemies list.” The former George W. Bush strategist did so after the president and the Democratic National Committee attacked the efforts of Rove, Ed Gillespie (another former Bush aide), and the Chamber of Commerce to exploit the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision by pouring tens of millions in secret campaign cash into dozens of House and Senate races to help Republican candidates. But as David Corn points out in a PoliticsDaily.com column, Rove is mugging history to score a political point.
Calling out political opponents is not equivalent to drafting “an enemies list.” For younger readers who may not be familiar with the term, it comes from Richard Nixon’s heart of darkness. When Nixon was in the White House, his aides compiled what was officially known as the “Opponents List” or the “Political Enemies List.” It was a secret roster. Its first iteration listed 20 names, including top Democratic fundraisers and strategists, the managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, two liberal Democratic members of Congress (Ron Dellums and John Conyers), CBS newsman Daniel Schorr, and actor Paul Newman. A subsequent list expanded Nixon’s official enemies to several hundred people, including Ted Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Gregory Peck, football great Joe Namath, and the entire New York Times and Washington Post. A White House memo detailed the purpose of the list: “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Think IRS audits.
By pointing a finger at Rove, Gillespie, and the Chamber of Commerce, Obama is not crafting a covert list of people to screw. He is trying to shame them into disclosing who is financing their multimillion-dollar campaigns to elect Republicans. Obama is correct when he decries the broken campaign finance system, which is easily swayed by special interests and wealthy folks. Under Citizens United, a billionaire industrialist who hates environmental regulations can flood a House or Senate race with ads (true or false) denouncing the candidate who supports environmental safeguards. The ads don’t have to state who’s behind them. The billionaire could hide behind a perfectly pleasant-sounding name: say, Citizens for Restoring American Progress. One sad truth of U.S. politics is that money and ads usually (though not always) do influence outcomes in congressional races. Consequently, secret funders have much clout and can shape American democracy. (Earlier this year, the House passed Obama-backed legislation that would force disclosure of contributions, but Republicans blocked it in the Senate.)
It is unlikely that Rove, Gillespie, the chamber, and others engaged in this covert politics will indeed be shamed by Obama and his Democratic allies into making their money men and women public. We can expect this debate to continue as Election Day nears. So if Rove wants to defend this practice of secret-cash politics, he should do so openly and not duck behind a canard. That is, let him explain why he shouldn’t be on a list of the enemies of transparency and open and accountable government.
By falsely tagging Obama with a Nixon-like tactic, Rove, who came of age as a young GOP activist during the Tricky Dick years, is himself acting in a very Nixonian fashion.