Karl Rove has done it again. He's turned legitimate political debate into partisan propaganda. In an e-mail
to Politico this weekend, the former George W. Bush uber-strategist who has long been accused of assorted dirty tricks
, blasted President Obama for cooking up an "enemies list." And on "Fox News Sunday," he charged
that Obama was creating "some kind of enemies list," adding, "How dare the president do this." But Rove is using a historical term inaccurately -- of course, to score a political point.
What triggered Rove's false claim was a Democratic Party ad that accused Rove, Ed Gillespie (a former Bush aide), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of "stealing our democracy." At issue are the efforts of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two groups co-founded by Rove, Gillespie, and the Chamber of Commerce to dump millions of dollars
in campaign money from unidentified sources into dozens of House and Senate races in the 2010 elections to lift Republican candidates. Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United
decision, groups like these can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence federal elections, and they do not have to identify the sources of their campaign cash.
With these organizations outgunning Democratic-leaning outfits, the Obama White House has launched an assault on them. On the campaign trail, Obama has noted
that "groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their [political] ads come from." (The liberal Center for American Progress last week put out a report
on the chamber's foreign money connections.) On Saturday, The New York Times reported that the chamber was not doing anything "improper or even unusual"
for a political advocacy group, but the business organization is pouring $75 million into House and Senate races, a figure far beyond the reach of many groups. And on "Face the Nation" this past Sunday, White House aide David Axelrod said
: "Why not simply disclose where this money is coming from? And then all of these questions will be answered. . . . These interest groups . . . are now the major force in some of these campaigns. . . . This issue of this special-interest spending is very important. It's never happened before, that organizations are spending this kind of money." Meanwhile, Rove and Gillespie's groups are aiming to spend $50 million
on the elections to bolster Republican candidates. (Two campaign finance watchdog groups have asked the IRS to investigate
one of the Rove/Gillespie groups for possibly violating tax laws that limit the political activities of nonprofits.)
Rove may be gone from the White House, but he's hardly forgotten, and the Democrats have relished turning an old target into a new target. But in responding to the White House assault, Rove has engaged in what he's so well-known for: spin.
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.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.