The campaign did not merely announce its full-throated support of the supposedly independent expenditure effort. It confirmed that it would be sending its own representatives to headline super PAC events. And not just campaign officials, but senior White House aides and Cabinet secretaries.
In for a dime, I suppose, in for a million-dollar check.
So much for a president who railed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
ruling, warning that it “opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy.” Now he’s deploying the Cabinet to help rake it in.
OK, they won’t be asking for the cash themselves — just sitting in the room to “amplify our message,” as the campaign explained, while others do the grubby work of collecting checks. (Calling Stephen Colbert.) This is a distinction only a campaign finance lawyer can love.
As I said, I have sympathy for the no-unilateral-disarmament argument, and for the Democratic predicament when it comes to matters of money and politics.
The super PAC phenomenon has already dominated the Republican primary campaign. A January report by the Wesleyan Media Project found that interest groups, which underwrote 3 percent of ads in the 2008 Republican nomination campaign, had thus far accounted for 44 percent in the 2012 race.
Republican super PACs have taken aim at President Obama. One group, Americans for Prosperity, has aired nearly $6 million in ads; another, the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, has run another $3 million worth. Those and other groups are poised to unleash millions more on Obama in the general election.
Mitt Romney’s super PAC raised $30 million in 2011. If he’s the general election nominee, those deep-pocketed donors can simply whip out the checkbook and write another big one.
In short, if you were Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, you’d be nervous, too.
Two former White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, established an Obama-supporting super PAC, Priorities USA, last year. But the Obama campaign kept its distance, treating Priorities USA as if it had a vaguely unsavory communicable disease.
And where the American Crossroads super PAC raised $19 million in 2011, Priorities USA raised $4.4 million. Throw in money raised by the groups’ nonprofit arms, which don’t even have to disclose their donors, and the gap is even bigger: $51 million for American Crossroads to $20 million for five Democratic groups combined.
Thus Messina’s announcement last week, in an e-mail headlined, “We Will Not Play by Two Sets of Rules.” The Obama campaign, Messina said, “has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands.”
Yes, but did it really have to go so far as to involve the White House itself?
Granted, the word “flimsy” overstates the fiction of separateness between the Republican super PACs and the candidates they are supporting. Mitt Romney appeared at an event for his super PAC. Rick Santorum, as my colleague Jennifer Rubin reported, is traveling with the chief donor to his super PAC, Foster Friess. So much for independence.
Yet the Obama campaign had a choice. It could have trumpeted its support for American Priorities without deploying campaign officials. It could have deployed campaign officials without involving the administration. Instead, it chose to push the envelope.
In an implicit nod to the unseemliness of it all, the Messina message pointedly noted that “the president, vice president, and first lady will not be a part of this effort.” Really? If it’s so unobjectionable, why not?
Messina assured supporters that Obama “favors action — by constitutional amendment, if necessary — to place reasonable limits on all such spending.” Nice, except we’ve seen this play before.
In 2008, when candidate Obama announced he would forgo public funding for the general election campaign, he declared himself “firmly committed to reforming the system as president.” You may have noticed a certain lack of presidential attention to that commitment.
Time after time, Obama has demonstrated himself willing to do whatever it takes to win. That’s praise, not criticism. The president needed to play the super PAC game in 2012. I just wish he hadn’t decided to go all in.