When Ronald Reagan took on Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, I volunteered to run an independent expenditure campaign for the National Conservative Political Action Committee. NCPAC itself was run by firebrand conservative activist Terry Dolan, and while both Terry and the organization he founded may be all but forgotten today, they played a pivotal role in the politics of the day.
Independent expenditures (IE) were relatively new phenomena then; NCPAC had used them to defeat sitting liberal senators in the previous cycle, and Dolan was anxious to do what he could for Reagan. At about the same time, Roderick Hills, a former Ford administration official, set up a separate IE led by the Republican establishment who wanted, like NCPAC, to play an independent role in the fall campaign. It appeared to most observers at the outset that the Hills operation would dwarf our plans.
That was not to be. Common Cause, led in those days by Fred Wertheimer, lodged a widely publicized Federal Election Commission complaint against Mr. Hills' group contesting its independence under the law and threatening to go after those who contributed to it. The NCPAC effort wasn't included in the charge or singled out for rhetorical attack even though many of us had enough close ties to Reagan campaign officials to justify the same allegations.
I ran into Mr. Wertheimer and asked him why he hadn't attacked us. The reason, he told me, was simple enough. Conservative contributors would be largely undeterred by such allegations. Conservative true believers probably would just give us more money to continue doing what we were planning. Mr. Hills' supporters, on the other hand, were businessmen and -women who would close their wallets to avoid the taint of controversy. The charges, Mr. Wertheimer admitted, were made to shut down the Hills operation by discouraging potential supporters who almost congenitally would shy away from anything controversial.
It worked. The Hills effort collapsed as nervous potential donors headed for the tall grass.
President Obama and his managers obviously are hoping the same thing will happen to the super PACs supporting his opponent this year and possibly to the Romney campaign itself. By calling out, investigating and doing their level best to demonize major Romney contributors, they clearly are hoping to make others pause before opening their checkbooks to the former Massachusetts governor.
Unlike the moves of Mr. Wertheimer and his friends more than 30 years ago, their threats carry official weight. Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson had it right when he told the Wall Street Journal recently that a threat deemed to be coming from a president of the United States or those who speak for him is very different from run-of-the-mill public criticism. Said Mr. Olson, "When you have the power of the presidency - the power of the IRS, the INS, the Justice Department, the DEA, the SEC - what you have effectively done is put these guys' names up on 'Wanted' posters in government offices."
Before the Obama campaign decided to make examples of Frank VanderSloot and seven other major Romney supporters, few Americans had ever heard of the Idaho Falls businessman. But since then, a private investigator with Democratic ties has tried to get into his sealed divorce records, his children have been harassed, and he has lost customers. He hasn't been deterred personally and says he may just increase his contribution to Mr. Obama's challenger to show that he cannot be intimidated. What Mr. VanderSloot and most of those who have commented on his travails misses is that it is not about him.
These threats are aimed instead at the hundreds and perhaps thousands of potential Romney contributors who will slink away lest they, too, become targets of the Obama attack machine. What Mr. Obama's political managers are doing by so viciously attacking those who would support the president's opponent is precisely what former Obama Environmental Protection Agency official Al Armendariz bragged about doing when he compared his agency's strategy to that pursued centuries ago by Rome's legions:
"You make examples out of people. ... And you hit them as hard as you can," Armendariz told a town-hall meeting in 2010. "It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer villages in the Mediterranean," he told his audience. "They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw, and they'd crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years."
Mr. Armendariz had to resign from the Obama administration for so clearly articulating what has become its trademark way of doing business, but his spirit lives on. Those Turks, like Mr. VanderSloot, were crucified not because of what they may have done, but to control others who would do anything to avoid a similar fate.
David A. Keene is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.
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