Last Thursday, in his speech at Bowie State University, President Obama accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of trying to "steal our democracy" by funding campaign activities with donations from foreign contributors. The chamber denied this charge immediately, insisting donations from foreign nationals were not used for political campaigns (that has been illegal since the 1907 Tillman Act). The White House produced no evidence to the contrary.
This weekend, the Democratic National Committee escalated its assault with a TV ad claiming that former GOP National chairman Ed Gillespie and I "even take in secret foreign money to influence our elections." The ad was referring to two groups for which Mr. Gillespie and I are informal advisers and fund-raisers: American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Neither accepts foreign contributions.
These smears were too much even for the New York Times, which noted on Saturday that "Democrats have offered no evidence that the chamber is using foreign money to influence the elections." Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org wrote the next day that "accusing anybody of violating the law is a serious matter requiring serious evidence to back it up. So far Democrats have produced none." And when CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asked White House senior adviser David Axelrod for corroboration that the chamber was spending foreign money on American elections, Mr. Axelrod answered, "Well, do you have any evidence that it's not, Bob?" Mr. Schieffer incredulously responded, "Is that the best you can do?"
So why is Mr. Obama making such an incendiary charge without any evidence? One explanation is that he is laying the foundation for an alternative narrative—the Democrats lost because Chinese campaign cash allowed Republicans to steal the election. Another is that the president is trying to fire up his party's base. But phony charges about campaign finance won't appeal to independent voters, the true source of Democratic troubles this election.
A third possibility is that Mr. Obama hopes to intimidate contributors to the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads or Crossroads GPS. If so, his tactic is backfiring. Crossroads and GPS have raised more than $14 million since he began his assault last week, enabling them to become active in House races they weren't targeting before.
The most plausible explanation is that Mr. Obama wants to distract voters from the 9.6% unemployment rate. But if some West Wing geniuses really think voters will forget Mr. Obama's body of work—the lousy jobs picture, failed stimulus package, disastrous health-care law, reckless spending and unprecedented deficits—simply by throwing dust in the air, then the president should run off a few more senior aides.
While most Americans are concerned about jobs, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats look like their only concern is keeping their own. When they hear the words "Chamber of Commerce," most Americans don't see a big white building on H Street in Washington, D.C., but a storefront on Main Street in their hometown. The White House attacks reinforce a perception that Mr. Obama is antibusiness at a time when job creation is the issue that will decide this election.
The smears about campaign money also open the president to charges of hypocrisy. Mr. Obama had no problems with liberal nonprofits keeping donor lists private as allowed by law (including when they run campaign ads). He never insisted that the unions that spent $450 million to elect him in 2008 disclose their donors—who may include other unions or even private individuals. Mr. Obama's own campaign refused to make public the names of more than 10% of its donors.
His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, worked in 2004 for a group that ran ads and didn't disclose its donors until after the primaries. His White House political director, Patrick Gaspard, came from the Service Employees International Union, which doesn't disclose its campaign contributors and admitted earlier this week that it might be spending money from foreign nationals on this year's elections. Are these two also a "threat to our democracy," to use the president's words from last Thursday's speech?
Beyond all this, Mr. Obama looks weirdly disconnected—and slightly obsessive—when he talks so much about the Chamber of Commerce, Ed Gillespie and me. The president has already wasted one-quarter of the campaign's final four weeks on this sideshow.
Congressional Democrats trying to eke out victories can't be happy when their president ignores the election's principal issues in favor of unsupported attacks of dubious significance. Bob Schieffer was right. Is this really the best they can do?
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 13, 2010.