GOP keeps fighting its war on ACORN

Republicans hold a hearing to recycle warmed-over talking points about the community group's massive power for evil


Gabriel Winant
December 2, 2009 11:30PM (UTC)

ACORN is rigging our elections, and undoing the basic principles of the American Revolution. Also, the community group is stealing from the poor. But that’s not surprising, because for all intents and purposes, it’s a mafia-type organization. Oh, and its tentacles are everywhere in the federal government, extending all the way to the president himself, and he in turn is shielding the group from prosecution.

This was the substance of a hearing that eight Republican members of Congress -- or, as they styled themselves, the “Joint Forum on ACORN ” -- held Tuesday. Over the course of the hearing, representatives and witnesses actually leveled all the above charges at ACORN, declaring the issue to be one “of importance to the American people,” as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., put it. (If he restricts the definition of "the American people" to members of his own party, he's probably right.)

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Since its employees were caught on tape in the prostitution-tax evasion sting, ACORN hasn’t had a lot of defenders. But if you thought the subsequent halt of federal funding for the group was the end of the story as a political issue, then you don’t know the modern GOP. Despite the grievous damage to the group’s reputation, Republican officials aren’t content just to damn ACORN with evidence of its clear failings. Instead, at the hearing they insisted on citing an array of unconvincing, vastly overblown allegations -- with a bit of racial panic thrown in -- as evidence that ACORN is destroying America and must be prosecuted.

Probably the top charge against ACORN is that it tampers with elections. The rhetoric surrounding this argument continues to be out of line with the substance. Said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., “Our forefathers fought for, I don’t know, what, eight years to defeat the British because they didn’t want taxation without representation. And now we’re watching all these things being taken away, just frittered away, because we won’t enforce the law? It’s just criminal.”

As ever, there have been no instances cited of actual fraudulent voting, despite the implication that the entire electoral apparatus of the country is tainted. Nobody thinks voter registration fraud is a good thing, but the kind of fraud in which ACORN employees have been involved is extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of an election. The fraudulent registrations aren't intended to be used -- they're a way for the employee to squeeze some additional money out of the group by serving as proof they worked more than they actually did. 

At the hearing, there was a new wrinkle to the argument about registration fraud, an idea that by dumping a stack of inaccurate registrations on local election boards shortly before the deadline, ACORN somehow disenfranchises legitimate voters because the boards can't handle the workload. Again, however, there was no evidence provided for the claim. 

Still, there's no stopping these guys. Iowa Rep. Steve King took the crusade to bizarre new heights, saying he carries an acorn and a copy of the Constitution around all the time, to remind himself of the threat the one poses to the other. Then there was witness Hans von Spakovsky, a conservative election lawyer, who thinks that the failure to prosecute ACORN implicates the entire law enforcement apparatus of the federal government. Said Spakovsky:

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Congress should not only hold direct hearings on ACORN and its activities, but also oversight hearings of the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Internal Revenue Service to obtain information on any investigations they are conducting into ACORN. If those agencies are not conducting any investigations, they should be required to explain why they are not carrying out their enforcement duties.

That would be, of course, almost exactly the argument that spurred some of the Bush administration's infamous firings of U.S. attorneys. The judgment of the fired prosecutors that there was no criminal case against ACORN for election fraud, in this line of thinking, didn’t exonerate ACORN -- it showed that the U.S. attorneys were incompetent at best.

And who could disagree, considering the almost superhuman way in which ACORN can apparently throw its weight around? After all, as several speakers at the hearing suggested, the group is just one huge criminal front. And, as Rep. Smith pointed out, ACORN’s got a guy in government. “President Obama previously served as ACORN’s lawyer, participated in ACORN training sessions in Chicago, presided on the board of two organizations that funded ACORN’s Chicago chapter.”

There are two separate points that need clearing up here. First, the president was never an employee of ACORN. He worked for Project Vote, which is now affiliated with ACORN but was not at the time, though the two groups were close. He also represented ACORN, alongside two other lawyers, in one case. Also on ACORN’s side in that case was the Department of Justice. Second, it could be literally true that Obama was an employee of the group back in the early ‘90s, and it wouldn’t really be that damning a charge. That’s because, despite Glenn Beck's fantasies, ACORN is not a vast criminal conspiracy. What it is, instead, is an often horrifically incompetent and sometimes corrupt but frequently helpful organization.

It’s easy to focus on the horror stories about ACORN (and important to condemn its various bad acts), but accounts of its role in bringing political power and useful advice to poor people go largely unheard. It should be possible, in other words, to work on a vast, successful and widely lauded voter registration drive without being smeared as a big-city gangster. Granted, ACORN isn't helping itself when it fails, many years running, to clean up its act. But it's also clear that at this point, that doesn't really even matter -- for many on the right, including members of Congress, the myth of the omnipotent, evil group is all that matters now.

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Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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