By Luke Brinker
When Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, announced this week that the Obama campaign would encourage donors to support Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC, observers couldn’t help noting what a significant U-turn the move signified.
Super PACs, which emerged from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, can accept unlimited donations from their contributors. While not permitted to coordinate with the candidates they support, the groups are often staffed by former aides to those very candidates. Former Obama spokesman Bill Burton, for instance, now works for Priorities USA. Shortly after the Court’s decision, Obama pronounced super PACs a “threat to democracy.”
After witnessing Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS lavish millions on defeating Democratic candidates in 2010, and faced with a repeat in 2012, Obama decided against unilateral disarmament on super PACs. The president would still prefer to see Citizens United overturned, but as long as it’s on the books, he won’t be content to serve as a pure martyr.
The decision puts the lie to a criticism often lobbed against Obama, from the earliest days of his time on the national stage – that the president is effete, aloof, and looks upon the nitty-gritty of politics with disdain. (Of course, no president afraid of playing political hardball would have persisted in pushing for passage of health care reform long after polls showed the public had soured on it and many Democratic politicians were running scared.) But some members of the Democratic Self-Flagellation Caucus are outraged at Obama’s decision.
“It is a dumb approach. … It will lead to scandal, and there are going to be a lot of people having corrupt conversations about huge amounts of money,” former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat defeated in 2010, said.
Feingold’s own experience is instructive. For much of 2010, political observers assumed that the liberal three-term senator was a shoo-in for re-election. But when millionaire businessman Ron Johnson, Feingold’s Republican opponent, contributed millions of his own funds to his campaign, the race tightened. (In total, Johnson gave his campaign $8.2 million.) Panicked, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee offered to help Feingold, but the cosponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law maintained his opposition to accepting outside campaign money and advertising. That decision probably played a significant role in Feingold’s narrow loss in November.
Had Obama gone the Feingold route, newspaper editorial boards and good government groups like Democracy 21 and Common Cause would have lauded him for sticking to principle. But he’d have risked an unnecessary defeat in the face of his adversaries’ onslaught. Obama’s super PAC flip-flop may be inconsistent with his earlier stance on the issue, but it’s pure reformist fantasy that campaign finance will significantly influence voters’ decision in the fall. If unemployment continues its downward trend and the economy grows at a healthy clip, few voters will enter the polling booth and say, “I sure do think I’m better off than I was four years ago, but I can’t abide a president who accepts super PAC support.”