Steve Chapman

At a campaign rally the other day, President Barack Obama decried those who say "you can't overcome the cynicism of politics; no, you can't overcome the special interests; no, you can't overcome the big money; no, you can't overcome the negative ads."

The president emphatically disagrees. But here's the odd thing: The only people you hear taking that view are in the White House.

It's been their lament since the Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations have a constitutional right to spend money communicating their views about candidates running for office. "I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest," Obama declared. All this spending, said presidential adviser David Axelrod, "is a threat to our democracy."

Lately, they are particularly alarmed that foreign money may be going to conservative groups that run anti-Democratic ads. Axelrod thinks it is vital for the names of such donors to be disclosed. CBS' Bob Schieffer asked, "Do you have any evidence that it's anything other than peanuts?" Axelrod replied, in a heroic display of chutzpah, "Well, do you have any evidence that it's not, Bob?" Guilty until proven innocent: a new concept.

But the president is right in believing that if people reject the agenda of the corporations that are spending money in this election, they can vote against it -- and win. Americans are about as likely to vote for every candidate a corporation favors as they are to buy every product a corporation advertises.

It's not as though Mammoth Amalgamated Corp. or China World Takeover Inc. is going out and paying citizens to cast Republican ballots. It's not even as though corporations, foreign or domestic, are trying to buy off politicians with direct campaign contributions -- which remain illegal.

All they can do is finance broadcast spots or newspaper ads with messages intended to sway voters. As more than half of all political candidates discover every election year, such efforts often fail. Unless the ads make a case that is persuasive and believable to a majority of voters, they are wasted.

Most corporate executives seem to understand as much and choose not to bother. When the Supreme Court decision came down, critics predicted a tidal wave of corporate spending on elections. What they overlooked is that in about half the states, such outlays were already allowed, without that dire consequence.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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