Politics Special

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We take a break from our Friday Journalists’ Roundtable to bring you an in-depth look at a couple of political issues. We’ll hear from both sides on dark money, a system of providing cash that influences political campaigns yet allows donors to stay anonymous. Tim LaSota, general counsel for the Arizona Republican party, will speak in favor of keeping the current campaign finance system, while local attorney Tom Ryan argues for less use of dark money in politics.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," our "Journalists' Roundtable" take a breaks for a political special. Hear a spirited debate on dark money and anonymous political speech, and "Washington Post" author and columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., talks about his new book, how the right went wrong. All that next on "Arizona Horizon."

Ted Simons: Good evening, welcome to the special political edition of "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Tonight we take a holiday weekend break from our normal Friday journalists' roundtable for a deeper look into politics. We start with a debate on the issue of dark money, anonymous donations that influence political campaigns. Tim Lasota, general council for the Arizona Republican party prefers the current system of campaign financing. Local attorney Tom Ryan would like to see changes. Let the debate begin.

Ted Simons: Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

Tim LaSota: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Define dark money.

Tim LaSota: I think what opponents of free political speech would characterize dark money as is money that maybe they think is improperly disclosed, but I think that's a very good point right off the bat. What this is about is an effort to limit free political speech. There have been a number of cases decided by the Supreme Court and other courts that have expanded the right to free speech, appropriately so. More in keeping with what our founders wanted and some people such as Mr. Ryan over here are very upset about that.

Ted Simons: Talk to me about dark money. What are we talking about here?

Tom Ryan: What we're talking about is undisclosed amounts of millions of dollars that are coming in flooding into our state and purchasing seats within our elective government. We don't get to know who they are. There's a very corrosive effect, it leads to corruption. It's not healthy for the state politicians. Let me give you a great example. As you know, our Arizona Corporation Commission right now is under investigation by the FBI because of the money that you talked about at the top of this segment that flowed into the state of Arizona.

Ted Simons: But does that not happen if there is no anonymous political speech?

Tom Ryan: No, it still happens but here's the deal. We have the right to know who is out there buying these elections. That's the problem. In fact, in citizens United the Supreme Court decision, one of the things that justice Scalia, a well-known conservative scholar, said is we are going to open the floodgates but we fully expect disclosure in this whole thing because people have a right to know civic involvement.

Ted Simons: Do people have a right to know who is funding political campaigns?

Tim LaSota: Well, let me go back to what Mr. Ryan said. What he said is ridiculous frankly about purchasing elections. Everyone has the right to political speech. This corruption, where is the corruption, Tom? Every one of these investigations that you trumpet over and over again, they always end up in the same place, which is right in the garbage can. You have no evidence of corruption.

Tom Ryan: Not all mine have involved corruption. Some involved conflict of interest like the Corporation Commission. This isn't about me or my beliefs, it's is dark money good for Arizona. Nobody woke up this morning and said the one problem we have in Arizona is just not enough money chasing our politicians around.

Ted Simons: The ideas of voters knowing who donates to campaigns sounds like a good thing.

Tim LaSota: I think it is generally a good thing. When candidates engage in political speech I think that it is appropriate to require that they disclose their contributions. Where the problem comes up is with corporations and corporations have the right to free speech, the Supreme Court said so, the Supreme Court is -- they obviously are right but the First Amendment protects the rights of businesses also. So they have this right and who is a contributor to a corporation? If General Motors makes a political contribution, who is a contributor to them? Anyone who buys a car? I think the problem is that the people who want to stamp out this new form of free speech essentially have not come up with a way to regulate it that would pass constitutional muster.

Tom Ryan: Actually there are ways to regulate it. The first is Montana and then California. Both of them have strict disclosure requirements. In fact a local political funding company here in Arizona got fined $1 million during the prop 8 -- [speaking simultaneously] Let me finish, please. Prop 8 election in California. They have excellent disclosure laws. I'm not asking for limits of money I'm asking for disclosure of who is buying up the seats that we have here. That's the important issue.

Tim LaSota: I think very few people in Arizona would hold up California as a model of much of anything these days. Certainly not their laws regulating free speech. I think what we saw in California is an example of the types of miscarriage of justice we get when we empower unaccountable government agents to try to go after and stamp out free speech.

Tom Ryan: Well, that's funny. We just passed a law in Arizona called Senate bill 1516. It completely gutted all our campaign finance violation laws. All it says now is if you are a 501c4 the IRS recognizes you don't even have to register in the state of Arizona. Now what are we going to do? What if foreign countries are coming in buying up water boards? I mean water commissions. What about drug cartels coming in and purchasing certain of our politicians? Nobody can say that doesn't happen. That's why this is important.

Do you think that happens? Is that possible?

Tim LaSota: First there are no black helicopters. I think what he's talking about here is just pure fantasy. The drug cartels are getting involved in American elections. But the broader point is he's completely mischaracterized Senate bill 1516. As it is now an entity is only a political committee if they are primarily devoted to express advocacy. By definition a C4 is not primarily devoted to expression advocacy. It's not a significant change in law.

Ted Simons: How do we know that cartels or any of these nefarious folks are not involved if we don't know who is involved?

Tim LaSota: Well, I mean how do we know anything? I think --

Tom Ryan: I got -- [speaking simultaneously]

Ted Simons: Hang on. Let him respond.

Tim LaSota: I think C4s have some disclosure requirements. Candidate committees have disclosure requirements. 527s have disclosure requirements. I mean, the system now, this notion that allowing more free speech is somehow bad is just a faulty notion.

Ted Simons: It can be argued, can it not, that -- monitoring anonymous political speech in certain ways puts a chilling effect on speech?

Tom Ryan: Respectfully, no, it doesn't. What it is all we're asking is for disclosure. By the way, let's go back to your jam example. If I'm a shareholder, I may not be happy about the way my corporation is spending the money that I'm entitled to. If they are expending it on causes that I don't agree with that's the opposite of free speech. That now becomes compelled speech. As a shareholder I want to know what my corporation is doing. The same for unions. [speaking simultaneously] If I'm a union member I want to know where my union dues are going. That's why we have this kind of disclosure. Leaving it to the IRS to monitor Arizona campaign finance violations is the height of silliness.

Ted Simons: Please.

Tim LaSota: Well, I mean, first of all the IRS does have a fairly robust enforcement mechanism, so I think that the notion that keeping one's IRS C4 status is somehow easy or the IRS is a toothless tiger I think most Americans would disagree with that.

Tom Ryan: Name one entity revoked had their 501c4 status revoked.

Tim LaSota: It happens all the time.

Tom Ryan: Name one.

Tim LaSota: That crossroad -- had theirs revoked. There was a liberal organization that had theirs revoked. It happens.

Tom Ryan: Very rarely.

Ted Simons: Again, under the umbrella here of anonymous political speech, why would anyone want to donate anonymously?

Tim LaSota: Because they fear retribution. It's a sad fact of life that some elected officials or public officials will abuse the power of their office to punish people who donate money and where the money is used to go after that person. That's the big problem with these big regulatory schemes that people like Mr. Ryan cook up is that it empowers unelected bureaucrats to essentially use the law as a hammer to go after their opponents. They don't have to win. They just have to make you spends millions of dollars in attorney's fees and it has precisely the chilling effect that they like.

Tom Ryan: Every time I as an individual, a citizen of the state of Arizona, make a donation to a campaign my name goes on a record down at the Secretary of State's office. I don't get that protection. You don't get it. Why are we granting it to anonymous people hiding behind 501c4? There's a great book out there by Jane Mayer, Arizona is ground zero for dark money and it ought to cause concern for every citizen of the state of Arizona.

Ted Simons: The idea of retribution. Say I donate anonymously because I like you, I want you to win but if I do that people could target me in a variety of ways, thus maybe I'm just not going to donate. Is that not a dampening, chilling effect?

Tom Ryan: No. It rarely happens. You look at elections, when can you Dell me when there best retribution for somebody who has made a contribution? There are situations where we know corporation versus been giving to Alec, the cover corporation for the Koch brothers. People have gone after them as a boycott. That's not the same as retribution in the sense of you may be hinting like the forefathers were hinting when they did the federalist papers.

Ted Simons: Does he have a point?

Tim LaSota: No. We saw the example in California that Tom likes to cite. A $1 million fine for that -- what was essentially a paperwork error is ridiculous. That's the type of enforcement we get with these schemes.

Tom Ryan: That was not a paperwork error.

Tim LaSota: Come on, Tom.

Tom Ryan: It wasn't a paperwork error. It was an obligation to disclose their donors under California law and they didn't do it.

Tim LaSota: They went after the affordable care act and that meant liberal election officials went after them. It was the affordable care act.

Ted Simons: Again, the idea of openness and transparency, some would listen to this and say you're not necessarily for transparency. Are they wrong?

Tim LaSota: No, I'm for transparency. We have candidate elections. Candidates have to disclose their contributions, but what in the realm of C4s we have a new entity regulators have not been able to find out a way to determine what's a contribution to that entity. It's very difficult when you have a corporation because corporations don't get contributions or a lot of them don't, they get income. They sell things to people and they pay them money for that. You have a very difficult task any regulator does in drawing the line between what's a contribution and what's just a corporation doing business. The people who are so hot to regulate this and stamp out this new form of free speech just haven't found a way to do it constitutionally. I don't know that they ever do. The point is their goal isn't disclosure. Their goal is eradication.

Tom Ryan: The whole idea that this is a new form of free speech let's deal with that real quickly. Money has been in politics from the get go. The problem now is we're allowing massive amounts, billions of dollars nationally, to go undisclosed or we don't get to know where the money is coming from. Problem number 2 is money is not free speech and I don't care what anybody says. Money does one thing. It buys you access to free speech. If I call a dog's tail a leg, a dog still only has four legs just because I call his tail a leg doesn't make it have five election. Free speech is not money and money is not free speech.

Tim LaSota: I have no idea what you just said. Free speech is absolutely requires money. Free speech is much more than just being able to stand on a street corner and say I'm Jesus. Free speech means little without the ability to get one's message out and this society --

Tom Ryan: That means --

Tim LaSota: Money to get the message out. We shouldn't have to rely on just the up in.

Tom Ryan: That means the people --

Tim LaSota: Broadcast news. If you want to go out there and exercise your right to free speech you ought to be able to spend money to do it. It's essential to free speech.

Tom Ryan: If you accept this proposition what you're saying is those who are the broken, downtrodden, oppressed, the poor have no right to free speech.

Tim LaSota: That's not true.

Ted Simons: How would you compare the average Joe who only has a certain amount of money with the average corporation which has a ton more money? Is it fair that that corporation can speak louder and more often than the person?

Tim LaSota: Of course it's fair that people with a bigger voice have a bigger voice. Saying that's unfair is like saying it's unfair that the president has a bigger voice than the average American. You're always going to have that in an open society. You're going to have people who have more resources, people who have fewer resources but that's no reason to bring down the people of fewer resources to a lower level.

Tom Ryan: If you want to know the governments that dark money buys take a look at Senate bill 1516. I testified against that bill and I said it's a danger to Arizona.

Ted Simons: Good to have you both here. We appreciate it. Good conversation.

Tom Ryan: Thank you.

Tim LaSota: Thank you.

Ted Simons: We wrap up our political special with "Washington Post" columnist and author E.J. Dionne, Jr., out with a new book on contemporary political conservatism. It's titled why the right went wrong. Conservatism from Goldwater to the tea party and beyond. Good to have you here.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It's a joy to be here. The home of John McCain and Barry Goldwater. You can't get closer to my book than this.

Ted Simons: Before we get too deep in the weeds, define political conservatism.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It's really good that you ask that question because I think one of the problems I deal with in the book is in a lot of ways what should be conservatism has become a form of radicalism or reaction. Because in my view what political conservatism is about is being concerned about preserving a way of life which sometimes requires a certain A. change. Edmund Burke was the great conservative. He said the statesman should have a disposition to preserve and a desire to improve. I think what often has happened to American conservatism is it's lost that desire to improve part. In my book I sort of set up Dwight Eisenhower as actually a model conservative and the kind of conservative that the current movement could really use. Many conservatives of course don't even think of Ike as conservative but he was willing to accept certain changes from the new deal. He thought there was a role for government. He did the internet highway system; student loans that helped millions including me go to college. He was a budget balancer, sympathetic to religion. Strengthened the safety of the world. Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964 was very radical.

Ted Simons: You write in the book that the Republican Party made what you call a wrong turn with Goldwater. Was that really the fork in the road?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It was. In some ways of course Goldwater himself later in life kind of felt that himself. I have the story in the book that when Bob Dole needed Goldwater's endorsement in 1996 to show that he was a real conservative; Dole could never stay on message. He said, we're the liberals now, aren't we, and Barry said, yes, I guess so. In 1964 he wanted to cut Social Security, the farm programs, a long list of things. With Goldwater the moderates in the party, first there was a purge of the liberals then the moderate politicians and over time moderates particularly in the northeast and middle west and West Coast started leaving the party. The center of gravity shifted to the deep south. That created a very different kind of Republican party. You're seeing it today with the trump debacle.

Ted Simons: I want to get to him in a second too. You're right how every Republican leader except for Reagan, every Republican president, George Herbert Walker bush, George W. Bush, candidates running for office, they have all been branded turncoats because it sounds like what you're saying is the far right has promised a lot. They failed to deliver once you get in office.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: First sentence of the book is the history of contemporary conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal. I have argued they have had to make a series of promises they couldn't keep to reduce the size of government action roll back the cultural changes of the '60s, of late practically change the ethnic makeup of the country to where it was in the 1940s. Government was almost exactly the same size when Reagan left office as when he took office. But yet you have the base that's very angry, which explains why they vote for candidates like trump, and candidates who try some version of moderation are pushed back. A good example, I talk a lot about John McCain winning the Republican nomination in 2008 against the wishes of the far right of the party. But when it came time for the convention he couldn't get his first choices for vice president because of the power of conservatives in the party. It was only after he couldn't get either Joseph Lieberman or the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge that he turned to Sarah Palin. So the effort to change the party is very vexed because of the nature of the primary electorate.

Ted Simons: I still think it's fascinating this diagram to where I'm going to be far right, I'm going to promise you, cut, cut, not advance, not move. I get into office, I realize government is a huge beast and I can't deliver on those promises and after a while the electorate that put you in there gets angry.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Exactly. The problem is there's a reason you can't cut government. It's because a lot of what government does people want. I quote two great analysts of public opinion back in the 1960s who said Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. They say they mistrust government and we are mistrustful of a lot of liberals of government too yet we want government to do a whole lot of things. Best example tea party people who want to cut but please don't cut Social Security or Medicare. They argue these are earned benefits. About what they are saying this is a group that's older, they don't want to lose Social Security and Medicare. These promises are just inherently unkeepable. That's why I come back to a figure like Eisenhower who did promise to balance the budget. He was very fiscally restrained but he understood that Americans wanted a certain amount of government and certain amount of government could achieve conservative principles. What's more conservative than moving goods and people around the country on highways or letting people improving themselves by going to college?

Ted Simons: Compare the tea party to the John Birch society.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: You know, a member of the tea party one day said, oh, they say we're radical but they say we're extreme but they said that about the John Birch society too. In the book my chapter on the tea party and some other developments, talk radio, fox news, is called the new new old right. Because in so many ways the ideas that you heard from tea party folks are very similar to ideas you have been hearing from that part of the right for 50 and in some ways 80 years going back to Roosevelt. Indeed when you go back to somebody like Glenn Beck many of the books that he put on his reading list were old John Birch society books. This was a very extreme group. You know, a lot of moderate Republicans wanted Barry Goldwater to denounce them. That's where his famous extremism in defense of liberty is no vice line came from.

Ted Simons: But William Buckley basically put the stake in the heart of the John Birch society, saying we can't work with these people.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Buckley always used to say that his job was to try to save the movement from the nuts as he put it once. So he did put -- it was not permanent in the sense that those ideas are still very much alive.

Ted Simons: Is there a William Buckley ready to say the same about the tea party?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: In the book I talk a lot about compassionate conservatives whom I have a lot of respect for and what are now called reform conservatives. What I argue is that there were some insights they have about the need for conservatism to correct itself but I personally think they have been too timid, too constrained by the nature of the party. I think a good example is Marco Rubio, who was very interested in the reform conservative ideas but really didn't in any fundamental way break with the right. I think the problem in this campaign has been he tried to occupy too many of the parts of the party at once. There are conservatives struggling to make a change. I think the crisis in the party you're seeing now may eventually hasten the day when conservatives say, you know, we can't go on like this. This doesn't work any more. I think you could see that as a product of the final results of they election in the end.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about the election and Donald Trump. Do Republicans in general understand the trump phenomenon? Basically what you have is a party saying we have got to save the party from a guy that most people in the party are voting for.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It's very important to note that trump is getting fairly consistently about a third of the vote. Somewhere between, say, 33 and 40%. So a majority of the party isn't with him. Up to now the rest of the field has cut up the votes. That's the first thing. Secondly if you take trump supporters a share of the whole country it's a lot smaller. It's important to keep him in context. But trump besides being the voice of that disappointment and a real hard-liner on immigration, an issue very familiar here, is also speaking for a whole lot of blue-collar Republicans who have voted loyally for the party for years and have no material benefits to show for it. You say that in -- that in Michigan, a state wracked by economic change and trade deals, it's funny you have a billionaire leading the class war inside the Republican party. I think that's part of it. The other part of it is he says very explicitly what some conservatives were trying to say under their breath. Somebody said the dog whistle has become a bullhorn. He doesn't just send signals, he says it outright, which I think embarrassing to a lot of conservatives.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, I'm reading today there's now some big deal financiers are getting together maybe to try an independent run or third party run to stop trump. The mainstream of the Republican Party is still against -- he may not have the most votes -- a majority.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: He has won more delegates than anyone else.

Ted Simons: No one else has beaten him. Do they understand why?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Well, they ought to because I do think the sense of discontent in the country, sense of economic -- among many people inside the Republican party is real. Then obviously this push-back against immigration and a sense that country is changing in fundamental ways that especially older Americans are uncomfortable with, but I think until they can sort of have an effective answer on economics, they are going to have a problem the blue-collar folks. I look back on the last campaign, and in certain ways both Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, two very different people, I think point to different strategies that have to come together for conservatives. Santorum was that blue-collar candidate. I think the Republicans need a much bigger sense for the left out than they have had and huntsman spoke for a certain kind of social moderation. In the long run the party's problem is that young Americans as well as Latinos and Asians and african-americans don't want to have anything to do with them and if your base is getting older and older -- I got nothing against older people myself, but they don't own the future. Young people own the future.

Ted Simons: That is it for now. Our "Journalists' Roundtable" will return next week. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of 8, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Tim LaSota: General Counsel for the Arizona Republican Party, Tom Ryan: Local Attorney

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