If Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, ever harbored any doubts that he’d be confirmed, he can rest easy now that billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson is lobbying against him. Adelson, the Dorchester-born casino magnate who last year spent tens of millions of dollars backing the doomed candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, has an almost unblemished record of picking losing causes.
Yet that hasn’t stopped him from urging Republican senators to oppose Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska whose bruising confirmation hearing was held Thursday. By coincidence, there is also a wave of TV commercials airing, supported by anonymous donors, targeting Democratic senators and urging them to vote against Hagel too.
This unprecedented ad campaign against a cabinet nominee is the natural outcome of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which overturned many limits on campaign spending. The anonymously funded ads attacking Hagel would have been legal previously. But by opening up far more avenues for billionaires to swamp the airwaves, the ruling seems to have unleashed more third-party spending generally.
It’s also an effort that the traditional GOP probably would have steered clear of, for an obvious reason: Hagel is likely to be confirmed, and investing in a campaign against him would be squandering resources and inviting an embarrassing defeat. The current anti-Hagel effort has an amateurish quality; it’s happening not because it’s a politically shrewd move, but because donors can afford it.
As the post-Citizens United landscape becomes clearer, it is hopefully dawning on some Republicans that by unshackling the Adelsons of the world, the ruling has weakened the party’s control over its message. Instead of the Republican Party deciding which fights to pick, donors are picking for them. If Hagel is confirmed, it’s not just Adelson who will look like a loser, but the party that’s allowed itself to be led into a losing battle.