Reporting from Washington —
Two former White House aides launched a pair of independent groups Friday to defend President Obama and fight the array of conservative efforts that poured money into the last elections, adopting the same tactics that have been condemned by the White House.
Former White House Press Secretary Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, who served as a top aide to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, said they were moved to create their own outside groups to fend off efforts by conservatives such as the Koch brothers and the groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Karl Rove. Veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala will serve as a senior advisor to the Democratic efforts.
Priorities USA has been formed as a 501(c)(4) organization – a nonprofit social welfare group that can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the identity of its donors. It putatively is designed to focus on issues – in this case, “to preserve, protect and promote the middle class” – but can spend up to half its money on political activities. The use of such undisclosed money in elections was vehemently criticized by Obama last year, as well as by Burton, then his spokesman.
But in a statement Friday, Burton said the decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United that opened the door to unlimited corporate and union spending on elections created a new playing field on which Democrats have to engage.
“While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars,” Burton said. “We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of the double standard are over.”
A second group, Priorities USA Action, is a so-called “super PAC” that can raise unlimited amounts of money for independent expenditures but must disclose its contributors to the Federal Election Commission.
A video on the group’s website warns that “the extreme right-wing” is “extremely dangerous,” playing clips of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. “It’s time to stand up and fight back,” the spot declares.
“This is an effort to level the playing field,” Sweeney said in a statement. “Americans deserve an honest debate about job creation, the economy, national security and education. That debate will never happen if only right wing extremists are engaged on the battlefield.”
Republicans were quick to pounce on the embrace by Democrats of the very political tactics they pilloried last fall.
"Last year, Obama’s White House and hard left allies launched a coordinated PR and legal assault on non-disclosing conservative groups – and now, just six months later, Obama’s own political operatives are launching the very type of groups they demagogued as ‘shadowy threats to democracy,'" said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the two Crossroads groups.
"Obama's brazen hypocrisy, in encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued last year, shows how cynical this President can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power.”
When asked Friday about the launch of the new Democratic independent efforts, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded: “We don’t control outside groups.”
“These are not people working for the administration,” he added. “The president’s position on disclosure remains the same.”
Priorities USA is one of several new Democratic groups springing up to take on Republican independent-expenditure efforts, several of which will not disclose their funding sources, as The Times first reported.
The stepped-up outside spending is already apparent in the current battle over the budget, with close to $1 million spent last week by groups on the left and the right on ads about the budget’s impact on Medicare in three dozen swing congressional districts.
Even as Democratic allies race to compete with Republican independent spending, the White House appears intent on continuing to push for rules that will force nonprofit groups to disclose their contributors. Obama is considering issuing an executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose political donations, even to nonprofit groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has many defense and government contractors in its membership. Campaign finance reform advocates have also filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission demanding donor disclosure.