(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Last night, President Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, sent out an e-mail announcing that the Super PAC Priorities USA will now receive the full backing and support of the presidential campaign:
With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.
Therefore, the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PACs. We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission.
What this change means practically: Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events. While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won’t be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA. I should also note that the President, Vice President, and First Lady will not be a part of this effort; their political activity will remain focused on the President’s campaign.
The political calculus here is obvious, and the decision inevitable. Last year, the leading pro-Democratic Super PACs and some nonprofit affiliates raised $19 million. The top ten GOP Super PACs raised $64 million over the same period—and that doesn’t include $32 million raised by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. Priorities USA has struggled to raise money to this point, in part because the campaign hasn’t given it the kind of support it is now pledging.
Obama’s team no doubt looked with angst at these fundraising totals, and last week they watched Super PACs supporting Mitt Romney spend $15 million in Florida on advertisements targeting Newt Gingrich, who had only $3 million in Super PAC support. Gingrich was blown out of the water only a week after winning South Carolina, and without suffering any sort of notable gaffe or change in political fortune beforehand.
Money makes a difference, particularly in national elections, and the number of voters who count campaign finance purity as their top issue probably number in the hundreds, particularly amidst an economic crisis. It was never a question of if Obama would rev up Super PAC support but when.
Messina took pains in his e-mail to assert Obama’s distaste for outside money, and outline the president’s previous opposition: only days after Citizen’s United was announced, Obama called out the decision during his State of the Union address with the justices sitting not twenty feet away. He also supported the DISCLOSE Act to increase transparency in campaign finance.
In a potentially major development, Messina also announced in his e-mail that “if necessary” Obama would support a constitutional amendment limiting money in politics—a key rallying point for many progressive groups. "Amending the Constitution is the only way to completely overturn the Court’s decision, and President Obama should be applauded for lending his support to the movement to restore democracy to the people," said People for the American Way’s Marge Baker. Public Citizen also praised the newfound support for a constitutional amendment, because "[w]e are now in the midst of a Citizens United-induced democracy death spiral," in the words of Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.
But the conversation cannot stop at the political rationale of Obama’s move, even if one accepts it. It’s important to be clear-eyed about the consequences of this decision: it will give corporations and the very wealthy an even larger voice not only in the election but well beyond it.
Super PACs are kind of like the hedge funds of campaign finance—vehicles tailor-made for the very wealthy. Romney’s biggest Super PAC, for example, raised 86 percent of its money in donations over $100,000, with $26 million coming from just ninety donors. Think about that for a second: if Romney’s spending in Florida really did win it for him—it surely helped a great deal in any case—ninety (very wealthy) people were responsible for it. That’s not very democratic. As Chris Hayes put it on Up this weekend, “the new Super PACs exist chiefly as an instrument for the extremely wealthy to funnel massive amounts of cash into influencing the outcome of our elections.”
Citizen’s United didn’t create Super PACs—what it did was allow them to collect unlimited amounts of money from corporations, who previously couldn’t spend such amounts on elections. So now corporations will have an even larger ability to influence an election that’s going to turn, at least in large part, on the fundamental issue of whether corporations already exert too much control over national affairs, from Wall Street to the oil fields.
It’s not good enough for Obama’s administration to say simply it needs this support to win in November. It probably does. The key question is: what about after November? To what will they owe their new big donors?
Among Priorities USA’s new donors, there may be an occasional George Soros, who donates big money mainly out of principle. But without question many of them will be corporations and business interests. Not even the most vehement Obama partisans could argue that those corporations will expect nothing in return should Obama win back the White House. This point hasn’t been addressed in the campaign’s current public relations campaign to explain its Super PAC as a necessary evil.
This is why some campaign finance experts are dismayed with the administration’s decision. I spoke with Jeff Clements, co-founder and general counsel of Free Speech for People, who said the administration’s “capitulation to the domination of our democracy by corporate-funded Super PACs is unfortunate,” and said it was “throwing in the towel in on this corruption of our government and elections.”
Russ Feingold, in an interview with the Huffington Post, also raised the spectre of influence-buying in 2013 and beyond. "It is a dumb approach," he said. "It will lead to scandal and there are going to be a lot of people having corrupt conversations about huge amounts of money that will one day regret that they went down the route of what is effectively a legalized Abramoff system."
Clements suggested the president should explicitly endorse the People’s Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which his group created, and to immediately sign an executive order forcing companies that have a government contract to disclose its donors—this is something the administration drafted this spring, but never implemented.
Obama could also show he’s actually serious about campaign finance reform by reforming the FEC via recess appointments, something several progressive groups are already urging him to do. He could and should also make it much more clear what kind of constitutional amendment he favors.
The decision may have been born of political necessity, as the campaign insists, but there’s work to be done to prove that Obama is truly opposed to big money’s role in politics. “What separates the candidates now is what they will do in the near term and after the election to fix it," said a joint statement from Nick Nyhart and David Donnelly at Public Campaign. "Mitt Romney has said he wants even more special interest money flowing directly into campaign war chests. President Obama should sharply distinguish his vision from his potential opponent by campaigning on a platform of ‘elections of, by, and for the people’ – all the people. Such a platform means a muscular ‘all of the above’ program: a small-donor driven campaign system, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, no big money nominees to the Supreme Court, increased disclosure, and a cop on the beat at the FEC to strictly police our campaign finance laws."