With massive midterm losses looming, President Barack Obama is blasting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for accepting foreign donations for its political advertising — a charge that myriad watchdogs and media outlets already have debunked as groundless.
The political battle the allegation has touched off appears to be escalating.
It began at a political rally in Maryland last week, when the president echoed a charge that first appeared in a left-wing blog that the Chamber of Commerce had used foreign contributions to help defray its $75 million campaign advertising budget.
Said Obama: "So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their ads come from."
The Chamber immediately denied the report, explaining that its strict accounting procedures keep foreign and domestic contributions separate.
Denunciations that the allegations appear groundless have spanned the political spectrum.
The New York Times on Monday stated flatly in a news article: "The Democrats have offered no evidence that the Chamber is using foreign money to influence the elections."
On Sunday's "Face the Nation" program, White House senior adviser David Axelrod conceded that the administration has no facts to support its claim, while not backing off on the president's implication that the Chamber may have violated U.S. laws.
When ABC host Bob Schieffer asked whether he had any evidence to support the charge, Axelrod shot back: "Well, do you have any evidence it's not [true] Bob?"
Schieffer's replied by asking Axelrod: "Is that the best you can do?"
The allegations against the Chamber, even as the administration tries to assure job-generating corporations that it is pro-business, appear to be part of a larger Democratic effort to alter the political dialogue in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked the IRS to investigate groups, such as the Chamber, that do political advertising. Also, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has called for a Federal Election Commission probe into whether the Chamber is using foreign donations to influence domestic politics.
Also, the Democratic National Committee has released a new ad castigating the Chamber as "shills for big business." The ad depicts a thief snatching a woman's purse in a parking garage.
"They're stealing our democracy, spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress," a narrator says in the ad. "It appears they've even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections."
The Wall Street Journal shot back in its lead editorial Monday: "Democrats are unleashing government power to silence their political opponents. Instead of piling on, the press corps ought to blow the whistle on this attempt to stifle political speech. This is one more liberal abuse of power that voters should consider as they had to the polls."
Republicans and business leaders are firing back as well.
Former White House Press Secretary and Fox News commentator Dana Perino tells Newsmax that Democrats are beginning to look desperate in the face of bad poll numbers.
"It sure isn't looking good," she says, "and it gets worse every day. And their desperation and [the] lashing out from the White House is — or should — be beneath them."
"Desperate, partisan attacks are a transparent attempt to distract voters from the issue America cares most about: job creation," wrote R. Bruce Josten, the Chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, on the Chamber website. "Now is not the time for political stunts, as the American people are rejecting politics as usual."
Obama himself appeared to back down somewhat Sunday at rally in Philadelphia, slamming Republicans for being beholden to moneyed interests while stopping short of alleging a violation of U.S. law.
But he did so by raising more questions about foreign influence in U.S. elections.
"They are being helped along this year by special interest groups that are spending unlimited amounts of money on attack ads . . . just attacking people without ever disclosing who's behind all these attack ads," Obama said of the GOP. "You don't know. It could be the oil industry. It could be the insurance industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose."
The latest remarks of Axelrod and Obama appear designed to put the pressure on the Chamber and other pro-business campaign advertisers to reveal which companies are contributing to their ad campaigns. The Supreme Court's January ruling in the Citizens United case allows organizations such as trade associations to run independent advertising for or against candidates — even within 60 days of an election. The advertising can be paid for through anonymous donations.
Companies seek to keep their political activities anonymous to avoid boycotts by left-wing organizations that could hurt their businesses. When Target Corp. recently donated $150,000 of support to a group that ran advertising for Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, MoveOn.org accused it of being anti-gay and started a boycott petition.
Some analysts say Obama and Democrats appear to be trying to shift the campaign's focus off of the president's policies and the dismal economy.
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