CLEVELAND — End Citizens United, a political action committee aiding Democratic Senate candidates who support campaign finance reform, announced yesterday that it was spending $1.2 million for TV ads in Nevada and New Hampshire.
Informed of this yesterday morning, David Bossie erupted with a sound that was half-laughter, half-snort.
"I think they’re intellectually bankrupt," the Citizens United president said, "because what they’re doing is thick with hypocrisy."
Why should a Democratic-aligned committee be exercising its free speech rights supporting a cause that would deny them to everyday citizens? Bossie wondered.
Well, it’s complicated.
But that kind of conundrum is rhetorical fuel for David Bossie.
Many people have never have heard of him, but Bossie, a 50-year-old college dropout, is one of the most pivotal figures in the conservative movement today. Forget Donald Trump or House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). There may be no one more responsible for creating the current state of the U.S. political system than Bossie.
"He’s probably in the top five in terms of having the most political impact in the country," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Bossie’s Citizens United is an elbow-throwing conservative group that sued the Federal Election Commission to ease limits on campaign spending. In a 2010 ruling that leaves Democrats and their allies like environmental groups stunned all these years later, the Supreme Court equated campaign donations with speech, paving the way for unlimited spending in most elections.
Sure enough, spending, by most accounts, has escalated in the last few election cycles.
"The impact of Citizens United is only getting worse, and we will continue to combat the dark money that is damaging our democracy," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has introduced legislation calling for more disclosure in campaign spending, said last month.
The spending manifests itself in different ways. Campaign contribution limits continue to exist for individual donors who want to give to candidates for federal offices. But there’s no limit on individual or corporate giving to super PACs and certain other entities.
Bossie’s handiwork is everywhere: On the airwaves thick with political advertising. In the preponderance of shadowy groups with neutral names and unclear funding streams, pushing controversial agendas. Even here at the Republican National Convention, where — just like at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — every event seems to have a surfeit of corporate sponsors.
All this has made Bossie a hero to conservative leaders.
"I think the argument that David Bossie brought that ended federal limits on campaign spending was a seminal First Amendment case, and I admire them for making that case," said Hans von Spakovsky, a former Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission who is now a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Von Spakovsky disputed the argument that the Citizens United Supreme Court case has tilted the political playing field in favor of big-moneyed special interests.
"Just look at the Republican race this time," he said. "The idea that you can buy people’s votes just doesn’t translate. What the Citizens United [case] did was make American politics more competitive."
Bossie said Republicans and conservatives appreciate the practical impact of the Supreme Court decision, but there’s a political element they celebrate, as well.
"If you look back over 7 ½ years, very few people can say they beat Obama," he said.
In fact, the Citizens United decision so rankled the president that he lectured Supreme Court justices about it during his 2011 State of the Union address.
Bossie said he was amazed to hear Hillary Clinton say recently that during her first 30 days in office, she would move to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
"She can forward a 28th Amendment to attack the 1st Amendment," he said. Then, reeling through the many challenges the United States is facing at home and abroad, he observed, "That, to me, is a screwed-up set of priorities. And she does it all to curry favor with the Bernie Sanders radical left."
Bossie is not one to mince words. But then, Citizens United has never shied away from controversy. The group’s co-founder, Floyd Brown, is perhaps best known as the architect of the so-called Willie Horton ad, which helped sink Democrat Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988. Bossie himself has promoted incendiary films and books through the years — in fact, the Citizens United court case stemmed from the FEC’s decision that the group’s desire to advertise a negative film about Clinton represented a violation of campaign finance law.
In Cleveland this week, Bossie is making the rounds and meeting with old friends. He is promoting a new film called "Torchbearer," a documentary about the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson — who has himself become a conservative icon. Citizens United is screening the movie in Cleveland tomorrow.
But Bossie is also wearing additional hats: This spring, he was elected Republican national committeeman from Maryland, a role he’ll officially assume soon after the GOP leaves Cleveland. And he is the Maryland GOP’s convention chairman.
Bossie notes that he got his political start in Maryland as an 18-year-old college student and president of the Young Republicans, worshiping Ronald Reagan. "I’ve come full circle," he said.
But Bossie’s run for the national committee post was not without controversy, either. He ousted a longtime incumbent who had served in several leadership roles at the state GOP.
"It showed that the status quo was broken, just like in Washington," Bossie said.
Asked what’s next on his agenda after shaking up the nation’s campaign finance system and a moribund Maryland GOP, Bossie replied, "You mean, is there a coup de grace or something? No."