Electoral debates offer a rare moment of transparency

I like the campaign debates. I watched most of the Republican primary matchups, even after they got repetitive, and I find the current flight of televised faceoffs riveting.

Yes, I realize the candidates are drilled relentlessly to suppress whatever capacity they retain for spontaneity and to make sure candor yields to calculation. But I figure even intensive coaching can only do so much. Pro football teams train exhaustively too, but the games always test them in unexpected ways. As heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Once the bell rings and the action starts, you’ve got two contenders fending, parrying, explaining, attacking, and at some fundamental level, revealing the quality of their minds and the nature of their aspirations.

Better still, the whole undertaking rests on the wondrous idea that voters aren’t idiots. Why bother debating unless everybody accepts the notion that voters listen, they follow arguments, they can distinguish sense from foolishness and, above all, they may even allow their conclusions about who “won” the debate to guide their votes?

The problem isn’t with the debates, it’s with most everything else in the campaigns. The debates are grievously marginalized. Whatever illumination voters might get from them is snuffed out by the unstoppable mudslide of paid propaganda, and the quadrennial welfare check—estimated at nearly $3 billion this time—that parties and patrons write to our commercial media, chiefly local TV, so they’ll carry the generally deceitful, emotionally toxic assaults on honesty, patriotism, integrity and character that inundate pivotal states.

One huge dimension of electoral advertising that I hadn’t known about was recently the target of a sobering expose by ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative reporting team. Their focus was the surge of money from so-called social welfare groups. In the world of big-bucks givers, the super PACS (political action committees) have drawn much of the public attention as ad funders, but they have actually been outspent by these social welfare nonprofits.

The thing is, that’s not what they’re for. These nonprofits get tax breaks, which spare them from paying a hefty gift tax on the money they’re given and entitle corporate donors to writeoffs, under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. That provision is intended to encourage donations for “social welfare” causes, not elections.

Indeed, many of those entities, ProPublica found, explicitly denied plans to use funds to support or oppose candidates. When it got its tax exemption in 2004 Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers oil fortune, told the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) it would spend nothing on elections, according to a related inquiry by Politico, the political news website. Yet it gave $39 million to help Republican candidates in 2010 and has already given $72 million to defeat Obama this year.

Worse, these nonprofits, unlike the super PACs, are allowed to keep their donors secret. Their growing role is one reason the proportion of campaign spending by outsiders—neither the candidates nor their parties—whose funders aren’t identified has soared from 1 percent in 2006 to 43 percent in 2010, says the Center for Responsive Politics. And that has created what ProPublica calls “the darkest corner of American political fundraising.”

Although the tax exemption doesn’t rule out all political activity, it does require nonprofits to be “primarily” involved in enhancing social welfare, calling attention to causes, not urging the election or defeat of particular candidates. Instead, as of August they had spent $71 million on ads that named particular presidential candidates (vs. $56 million spent by super PACs.)

ProPublica primarily identified funders on the political right, which has taken greater advantage of these provisions. As of August, it’s estimated liberal nonprofits had put $1.6 million into the presidential campaign; by comparison, two top conservative social welfare organizations—Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS—had alone spent $60 million.

Whether these nonprofits are funding elections lawfully is rarely ever decided. The rules are unclear. Typically, well before the IRS gets around to deciding on eligibility, the elections are over and the organizations are gone. Regardless, it’s hard to love a system that allows the taxman to decide the permissibility of political expression.

But legal or not, the anonymity loophole keeps the rest of us from knowing who’s actually talking with their wallets and deciding how much weight to assign to their words. Instead the paymasters cower behind high-minded, make-believe names, and the rest of us can’t hope to figure out who they are and what they really want.

Which is why I love the clarity of the debates. Two contenders, unmistakably present, making their cases, pleading their causes, no strings attached.

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