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Jon Schwarz

Jon Schwarz is editor of MichaelMoore.com and was research producer for 'Capitalism: A Love Story.' He's also contributed to the New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Saturday Night Live and NPR.

October 2nd, 2012 11:14 PM

Citizens United Decision Was Complete Garbage, According to Billionaires Who Love Citizens United

This was the funniest part of the Supreme Court's Citizens United opinion back in 2010:

[W]e now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption…The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.

So how are those claims bearing up two years later? You can find the answer in a New Yorker magazine article* about why America's billionaires despise Barack Obama. (Spoiler alert: they're insane.) Much of it's about Leon Cooperman, a hedge fund manager:

One night last May, some twenty financiers and politicians met for dinner in the Tuscany private dining room at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas...The richest man in the room was Leon Cooperman, a Bronx-born, sixty-nine-year-old billionaire...he has gained notice beyond Wall Street over the past year for his outspoken criticism of President Obama. Cooperman formalized his critique in a letter to the President late last year which was widely circulated in the business community; in an interview and in a speech, he has gone so far as to draw a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich.

The dinner was the highlight of the fourth annual SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, known as SALT, a convention orchestrated by the fund manager Anthony Scaramucci; it brings together fund managers with brand-name speakers and journalists for four days of talking and partying…

Scaramucci, the organizer of the dinner, told me the next day that the guests had witnessed the “activation” of a “sleeper cell” of hedge-fund managers against Obama. “That’s what you see happening in the hedge-fund community, because they now have the power, because of Citizens United, to aggregate capital into political-action committees and to influence the debate,” he said…“If there’s a pope of this movement, it’s Lee Cooperman.”

There were also politicians there—but if you guessed they were Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, you'd be wrong. It was Al Gore and Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles and chairman of the 2012 Democratic convention.

The article portrays Gore as somewhat standoffish. But not Villaraigosa:

Cooperman had come to the dinner to give Gore a copy of the letter he’d written to President Obama. “I’d like you to read this,” he told the former Vice-President. “You owe me a small favor. I voted for you,” he said, referring to Gore’s Presidential run, in 2000.

In the letter, Cooperman argued that Obama has needlessly antagonized the rich by making comments that are hostile to economic success. The prose, rife with compound metaphors and righteous indignation, is a good reflection of Cooperman’s table talk. “The divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them,” Cooperman wrote. “It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents.”

At the dinner, Al Gore was diplomatic when presented with the letter...[Orin] Kramer, the hedge-fund manager and Obama fund-raiser, was quiet, but others in the room were enthusiastic. Villaraigosa gave Cooperman his direct phone number.

So here's what we're supposed to believe:

1. Billionaires will get together in Las Vegas to plan political strategy—and their honored guests aren't Republicans, but Democrats.

2. The hedge fund managers at the meeting openly talk about how, thanks to Citizens United, they're forming a "sleeper cell" to "aggregate capital." The head of this sleeper cell will be a guy who compares Barack Obama to Hitler.

3. The mayor of Los Angeles, who's going to be running the Democratic National Convention in three months, will give his direct phone number to the guy who compares Barack Obama to Hitler.

4. Nevertheless, none of this gives rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption, or will cause Americans to lose faith in our democracy.

I think it's fair to say that we've now heard from the mouth of the billionaires themselves, the ones who love Citizens United so much, that the Citizens United decision was total garbage.

I actually have some sympathy for Gore and Villaraigosa. It's almost impossible to accomplish anything in U.S. politics today without going to meetings like this and trying to mollify the billionaires and their universe-sized egos. But Villaraigosa in particular should answer a few questions: Did this really happen? (The answer's yes, since when asked about it by the LA Weekly he refused to comment). How many people have his direct number? Of those, how many like to compare Obama to Hitler? And does he agree with the Supreme Court that stuff like this shouldn't make Americans at all suspicious?

* The New Yorker article is by Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, who's written a book coming out soon called Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.

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