There’s no clearer, more unambiguous way to say “I am running for president” than “I'm proud to announce I plan to form an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my candidacy for the president of the United States of South Carolina.”
And that’s what comedian Stephen Colbert said on his Comedy Central show last night.
Run, Stephen, run!
I know CNN thinks it might be a joke. Has CNN been watching this race? Do they remember when they considered Donald Trump a serious candidate? Have they entirely purged from their memory the period when Herman “9-9-9” Cain was the front-runner? If people were disqualified from running for the nomination on the grounds that they “might be a joke,” no one would be in the race now except Mitt Romney. Mitt has only made one joke in the entire course of his life, and he sincerely apologized to everyone who heard it afterward.
“But this is becoming a serious race now,” CNN notes.
Yes, very serious. That is why Ron Paul is telling everyone who is not Ron Paul to drop out, why Newt Gingrich is rampaging across the state unleashing bats everywhere and why Rudy Giuliani is telling him to get a grip on himself. That is why Stephen Colbert is beating Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, who has actually shown up at debates and stood near Rick Perry, which ought to count for something.
There’s always room for one more in the clown car.
And besides, Colbert has money. That’s what counts, this time. He may not be a serious candidate — ask a stupid question, CNN — but if he gets into the race, he’ll be able to make a serious point about campaign financing. It’s the real joke. And voters are the butt of it.
A few months ago, when he formed his super PAC — “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” — he found himself on the outer limits of parody. There was almost nothing he could do to make campaign finance, post-Citizens United, more absurd than it already was. Since the landmark court decision, corporations are people, my friend — most of Mitt Romney’s best friends are corporations — and, as people, they’re entitled to free speech. Unfortunately, corporations have difficulty saying things the way most people do — too bashful, or not enough mouths, or something — so they fall back on handing out large sums of cash.
This cash then joins a super PAC, where it expresses itself in the form of attack ads, or attack videos, or just a lot of patriotic bunting. If it’s lucky, it gets its picture taken with Mitt Romney.
Even Stephen Colbert couldn't make campaign financing funny. When he tried, getting his super PAC approved by the FEC, it was mainly nightmarish, that moment when you realize that the joke is that there is no joke. As he tried to explain it to viewers last night, the full horror of the situation dawned. Super PACs are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. But what does that mean? Well, having a business partner run the super PAC isn’t coordination. Bringing over employees from when you ran the super PAC yourself isn’t coordination. And the super PAC can run attack ads against your opponents and positive ads for you and — nope, still not coordinating. It’s a brilliant segment.
This is a point that needs making, loudly, and Colbert is in a great position to make it. After last night, people are already frantically Googling “super PAC,” just to make sure this isn’t some sort of joke. It isn’t. But if anyone can make it funny, it’s Colbert. Besides, he’s just a few points behind Rick Perry in the polls.
Sure, he won’t appear on the ballot — there’s no write-in space in South Carolina — but the voting part? With all this money, who actually cares about that?
Run for it.