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Goldman Sachs holds its political tongue

August 3, 2010 |  1:59 pm

Goldman Sachs, Citizens United, Target, BestBuy, Tom Emmer
Goldman Sachs' headquarters: A towering millstone? (Reuters / Brendan McDermid)
If you were running for office this year, would you want Goldman Sachs stumping for your election?

Talk about radioactive. The firm epitomizes everything that Main Street hates about Wall Street these days -- rescued by the feds from billions of dollars in losses in the collapse of 2008, it quickly rebounded to post billions of dollars in profits. In the meantime, a federal lawsuit showed how Goldman created at least one exotic mortgage-backed product that was designed to fail, soaking one set of clients for the benefit of another. Nice!

So I'm not sure how big a deal it is that Goldman pledged not to spend any of its cash hoard on political ads this year, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. Significantly, that spending has to be independent, not directed by or coordinated with any candidate's campaign. So if Goldman wanted to run a bunch of commercials urging voters to elect Candidate X (or, more typically, to vote against Scumbag Y), its favored candidate couldn't legally put a stop to it.

But as Goldman must surely know, any attempt it made to help candidates could very easily backfire, especially among voters outside Wall Street. And Goldman didn't get to where it is today by making bets on investments with poor prospects. 

Still, the news about Goldman serves as a reminder about how important it is for voters to know who's funding campaigns -- both directly and indirectly. I'm not as troubled by the Citizens United ruling as some of my colleagues are, but the ruling could have pernicious effects if large corporate and labor donors can hide their contributions by laundering them through benignly named front groups. The arguments in favor of anonymous speech don't persuade me that companies or unions should be able to finance campaigns in secret.

Just as ill will against a donor could harm a candidate, so too could candidates' controversial stances bring unwelcome attention onto the groups who support them. That's another reason to have full disclosure of the sources of campaign dollars -- it forces donors to evaluate candidates on a full range of issues, not just their one pet cause. Witness the controversy Minnesota-based Target and Best Buy have attracted for donating large amounts to an independent political group supporting a Republican gubernatorial candidate in that state, Tom Emmer.

The companies may back Emmer because he's a business owner who's complained that the state's tax rate and regulatory burdens are driving off employers. They may not have thought twice about Emmer's stance on gay marriage or his support for Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants. Granted, the activists who oppose Emmer could make him more appealing to voters there. But do Target and Best Buy really want that kind of attention?

Emmer, by the way, has defended Target's $150,000 donation as an exercise of free speech. But when a corporation exercises its (limited) right to speak, that doesn't mean the audience has to sit on its hands. People are allowed to talk back -- and even to say things like "Let's boycott." It's all part of the expanded debate that the Supreme Court set in motion with Citizens United; a debate that's just getting started.

-- Jon Healey

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