“One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called super PACs, these independent expenditures that are gonna be out there, there is gonna be just a lot of money floating around and I guarantee a bunch of it’s gonna be negative.” — President Obama in an interview Super Bowl Sunday.
“President Barack Obama — in an act of hypocrisy or necessity, depending on the beholder — has reversed course and is now blessing the efforts of a sputtering super PAC …” — from a story on Politico the next day
We’ve seen this movie before. In 2008, candidate Obama broke a promise to use public campaign financing, thereby gaining a tactical advantage at the expense of betraying his professed principles. Of course, politics is hell on principles, so one can hardly be surprised at his decision now to embrace a super PAC set up on his behalf. Disappointed, but not surprised.
Maybe you’ve seen recent episodes of “The Colbert Report” in which Stephen Colbert has spoofed the super PAC rules by following them. He formed a super PAC, raised a million dollars, then announced his candidacy for “president of the United States of South Carolina” and, in accordance with the law, turned control of the money over to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who then ran an ad slamming Mitt Romney, Colbert’s “opponent” in the South Carolina primary. This was all legal, so long as the two did not “coordinate” their activities.
That Colbert and Stewart are friends and business partners and shared staff did not count as “coordination.” Which sort of puts it into perspective when a real candidate shrugs and says he has no control over nasty takedown ads run against his opponent by some super PAC controlled by his friend or business partner.
It also offers vivid illustration of how disastrous was the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that paved the way for corporations to dump unlimited money into the electoral process. The court blessed this chicanery under the theory that money is speech. One does not dismiss a free speech argument lightly, but one should dismiss this one just the same.
If a billionaire wants to express her opinion, let her write a letter to the editor like anyone else. Let her take out an ad in the local paper.
But giving her the ability to flood an election with unlimited, practically unregulated money gives her an unfair and insurmountable advantage, rendering her voice exponentially louder than that of the average citizen. Worse, as we see with Obama, it inaugurates a cash flow arms race from which no candidate, however principled, can afford to opt out.
One is reminded of a perverse old reading of the golden rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” That saying has about as much to do with the actual golden rule as the court’s decision does with free speech, but it neatly sums up the effect that decision has had on American politics.
It is past time we the people demanded corporate cash be banned from politics, and that all candidates be required to accept public financing. Until then, we are doomed to keep seeing this movie.
Politico casts Obama’s decision as an act of either hypocrisy or necessity. But see, that’s just the problem:
It was both.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email address is: [email protected] Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EST on www.MiamiHerald.com.