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'Super PACs': Can American Crossroads unseat President Obama?

April 09, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Independent political organizations known as "super PACs" are the wild cards in this year's election, the product of a series of court rulings, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in January 2010. Graphic: Here's a look at the spending to date.
Independent political organizations known as "super PACs"…

The presidential race is about to get nasty. American Crossroads, the “super PAC” in Mitt Romney’s corner, is about to unleash a campaign that aims to unseat President Obama. If money truly buys power, the super PAC may end up being more persuasive over voter opinion than Romney himself.  

“American Crossroads, the biggest of the Republican ‘super PACs,’ is planning to begin its first major anti-Obama advertising blitz of the year, a moment the Obama re-election campaign has been girding for and another sign that the general election is starting in earnest,” reports the New York Times.

In February, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez described super PACs like this:

On the national scene, already more than $322 million has been raised in support of candidates for president, with $56 million of that going into “super PACs.” Do you know what a Super Political Action Committee is?

It's a slap in your face.

Someone sets up a little club and calls it something like the Apple Pie and Cuddly Kittens Committee or the American Sunshine and Pride Fund, and then the richest people in the world can donate UNLIMITED amounts to the PACs in support of a candidate, so long as they don't coordinate spending the money with the pol's campaign.

Our editorial board has also been critical of super PACs. The board has written that “the Supreme Court was naive in believing that most independent expenditures would be hermetically sealed off from campaigns. It was also too sanguine in concluding that independent expenditures pose less of a potential for corruption or the appearance of corruption than direct contributions to campaigns.”

And it’s not just the mainstream media waving red flags. In a column earlier this year, Washington columnist Doyle McManus pointed to gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, a super PAC critic and donor.

"I'm against very wealthy people … influencing elections," the eighth-wealthiest man in America told Forbes. "But as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it."

Of course, it’s not just the wealthiest people doing what they can to rig campaigns. It’s corporations too.  On March 30, “This American Life” devoted an entire episode to how money is currently corrupting politics. “The trouble with this issue -- and I think John [McCain] would agree with this -- is people have gotten so down about it, they think it's always been this way,” says Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in an interview. “Well, it's never been this way, since 1907. It's never been the case that when you buy toothpaste or detergent or a gallon of gas, that the next day that money can be used on a candidate that you don't believe in. That's brand new. That's never happened since the Tillman Act and the Taft Hartley Act. And so, people have to realize this is a whole new deal. It's not business as usual.”

It’s enough to make you -- voters whose purchases may inadvertently count more than their votes -- want to live off the grid.  

In January, the editorial board suggested two reforms that would make this whole super PAC business a little more honest.

Going forward, there are at least two reforms that would take some of the edge off this problem. Improved disclosure laws would force prompt reporting about who gives to super PACS, so that the public might know who is behind the enormous sums being raised and spent. And prohibiting super PACs from lining up behind a single candidate -- on the grounds that candidate-specific super PACS are really just thinly veiled agents of the candidate -- might reduce some of the naked evasion of contribution limits. Neither would undo the damage of Citizens United, but both would represent a start.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this incarnation of super PACs for now.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter: @alexletellier

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