Obama bows to reality in embracing super PACs

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The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Feb. 12:

Unlike Henry Clay, Barack Obama would rather be president than right.

Last week, Mr. Obama decided that winning a second term in the White House was more important than sticking to his opposition to unlimited campaign spending by powerful interests. By freeing administration officials to raise funds for Priorities USA and other so-called “super PACs,” the president embraced the campaign arms race.

Super PACs are a creature of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which removed any limits on contributions to independent political groups. The ruling also permitted corporations and labor unions to donate directly, in unlimited amounts, sometimes anonymously, to independent groups.

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Officially, those groups must not — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — coordinate their activities with political candidates. The public is supposed to believe that when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius or Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, show up at Priorities USA events, or when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks — as he did early last year — at a Restore Our Future super PAC event, it’s a happy coincidence.

The corrosive effects of the Citizens United decision now are in full bloom. Comedians are mocking it. The public is more convinced than ever that politics are corrupt. In one poll, two-thirds of small business owners said the decision has been bad for their businesses.

Mr. Obama could have made a powerful statement by rejecting independent expenditures, as he did in 2008. Sticking to his guns might even have attracted more direct contributions at the $5,000 limit ($2,500 each for primary and general elections). In 2008, Mr. Obama attracted $750 million in direct contributions, using the Internet to shake the trees. This year, he hopes to raise $1 billion that way. He’s lost a lot of his Wall Street donors, but he’s got Air Force One and the bulliest of pulpits.

But Citizens United changed the calculus. And if there’s one thing America has learned about Barack Obama since 2008, it’s that he is not one to impale himself on principle.

Conservative-leaning super PACs could raise as much as $500 million this year, administration officials fear. Priorities USA, founded by two former Obama aides, has raised only $19 million.

A fundamental question faced by candidates at every level of government is this: Is it wiser to stand on principle and risk going down in flames, or to bow to the reality that unless you’re elected, you can’t accomplish anything?

Super PAC money will, in large part, be spent on producing and airing negative television commercials. That was the case in 2010, the first post-Citizens United election, and it’s been the case in the Republican presidential primaries. The worst part about it is that the attack mentality carries over from politics to governance.

But going negative works, and few voters pay much attention to the “paid for” line. But that line is crucial; even the justices in the Citizens United majority insisted that transparency is vital to assuring Americans that their government is not for sale. But the justices did nothing to mandate transparency, thus leaving us with the worst of both worlds: unlimited donations and limited transparency.

Having ceded the high ground, as he had to, Mr. Obama should at least do this: Urge “independent” super PACs supporting him to disclose all donors. And then spend their money on campaigning to change the system.

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