Obama campaign manager uses free-market group for 2012 punching bag

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Barack Obama’s campaign manager released a snarky reply to the Koch brothers’ complaint last week that he is targeting “individual citizens and private companies for some perceived political advantage.”

Campaign manager Jim Messina avoided the substance of the pro-free market Kochs’ letter, reiterated his suggestions of malfeasance by the company, and urged the Kochs to disclose all donors to the libertarian group Americans For Prosperity.

“When you attempt to drown out [Americans’] voices through unlimited, secret contributions to pursue a special-interest agenda that conflicts with what’s best for our nation, you must expect some scrutiny of your actions,” Messina wrote in his letter, which was released Wednesday on Obama’s campaign website.

Messina’s response came three weeks after Obama suggested his donors make undisclosed donations to a so-called super PAC, Priorities USA, and offered his top White House deputies as speakers for the super PAC.

The new anti-Koch letter illustrates the Democrats’ attempt to energize progressive supporters by highlighting Obama’s disagreements with the energy-industry billionaires Charles and David Koch.

The libertarian Koch brothers have funded Americans For Prosperity, whose members have rallied and protested against Obama’s progressive efforts to gain federal control over additional portions of the national economy. Those sectors include health care, energy, education and religion. (RELATED: Full coverage of the Obama presidency)

For example, the administration moved Feb. 10 to enforce unprecedented rules on on the churches, with Obama’s announcement that religious groups must fund abortion-drug and contraception services that conflict with some Christian denominations’ teachings. Only religious groups that meet a four-part government test would be exempted from the regulation.

Messina’s letter Wednesday was a response to a Feb. 24 letter from Philip Ellender, head of Government Affairs and Public Relations at Koch Industries. Ellender had complained that Obama, Messina and their allies were targeting the company.

“It is an abuse of the President’s position and does a disservice to our nation for the President and his campaign to criticize private citizens simply for the act of engaging in their constitutional right of free speech,” Ellender wrote. “The implication in that sort of attack is obvious: dare to criticize the President’s policies and you will be singled out and personally maligned by the President and his campaign in an effort to chill free speech and squelch dissent.”

Ellender called on Obama to debate political issues instead of defaming the Kochs.

“If the President’s campaign has some principled disagreement with the arguments we are making publicly about the staggering debt the President and previous administrations have imposed on the country, the regulations that are stifling business growth and innovation, the increasing intrusion of government into nearly every aspect of American life, we would be eager to hear them,” he wrote.

Ellender also disputed Messina’s earlier statements, saying that “contrary to your assertion that we have ‘committed $200 million to try to destroy President Obama,’ we have stated publicly and repeatedly since last November that we have never made any such claim or pledge.”

But Messina’s response repeated his earlier charges and also called on the Koch brothers to identify their groups’ donors, who have relied upon IRS privacy rules set by the Supreme Court to shield themselves from feared government retaliation.

“It’s been reported that your employers and those close to them intend to spend $200 million in an attempt to defeat the President. … There is one way to verify your point: disclose those donors for the public to make that judgment.”

Messina said the Kochs’ company “has enriched itself by keeping oil off the market, storing it in offshore tankers and waiting to cash in when the cost of oil rises … [but] our energy strategy cannot be set by what’s best for the pocketbooks of politically-connected oil and gas executives.”

Messina also challenged Americans For Prosperity’s bona fides.

“You argue that Americans for Prosperity is a grassroots organization of everyday citizens.  But its emphasis on rolling back environmental protections and blocking a clean energy economy appears to be nothing more than an effort to promote the corporate interests of your employers and others who lavishly, and secretly, fund its operations.”

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