When Super PACs Came To Town

Despite a couple fumbles in the week leading up to the South Carolina primary, and then being routed in that contest by Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney has won the Florida GOP primary and appears poised once again to reclaim the moniker of “inevitable nominee.” Though Gingrich still leads in national polls, Romney’s win in Florida demonstrates his superior organization, outsized fundraising prowess, and his favor with the conservative establishment.

In the days leading up to the Florida contest, as it became clear that Gingrich would lose to Romney, the former Speaker of the House was defiant that he would stay in the race right through the summer. With Gingrich now realistically the only candidate left between Romney and the nomination, it is easy to forget that only a few months ago his decision to embark on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife, Callista, caused most of his campaign staff to resign, and that he barely registered in polls. So what happened?

The answer may lie in a two-year-old Supreme Court decision, commonly referred to as Citizens United, that granted corporations the power to make very large, and often very secret, contributions to organizations called super PACs (political action committees). Some background from The Atlantic:

Of course, Citizens United, decided by the Supreme Court two years ago this month, threw out restrictions on campaign funding by corporations and unions. But it was SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals two months later, that opened the doors to unlimited spending by groups of individuals, as long as they’re not in cahoots with campaigns. The two decisions together created “super PACs,” largely unfettered political-spending vehicles with comically oblique names like Restore Our Future and Winning Our Future and Priorities USA.

How ridiculous are super PACs? Enough that Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert decided to create his own — Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — to demonstrate just how inane the whole system is, and he has raised more than $1 million doing so. From a profile in the New York Times Magazine:

In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.

The super PAC effect

Following Romney’s sort-of win in Iowa and his victory in New Hampshire, he seemed poised to take South Carolina as well. Had Romney taken the “first in the South” primary, with boasts of a far more conservative electorate than New Hampshire, he may have wrapped up the whole contest right there. But there is a certain element of the GOP base that hasn’t warmed to Romney. One such person is Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

According to the New York Times, Adelson contributed a whopping $5 million to a pro-Gingrich super PAC days before the South Carolina primary, “helping Mr. Gingrich to an upset victory in Saturday’s Republican primary there.”

In the days before the Florida election, Adelson’s wife contributed an additional $5 million, allowing the group “Winning Our Future” to fund ads that Gingrich’s campaign wouldn’t be able to afford on its own. Though the super PAC wasn’t able to carry Gingrich to a Sunshine State victory, it may have enabled him to claim with some legitimacy that he is performing well enough to justify continuing his campaign.

Gingrich’s campaign is hardly unique in its reliance on super PACs. Politico reports that outside spending is up 1,600% from 2008, and pro-Romney groups have spent millions building up their favored candidate. And though the Obama campaign has not purchased large ad buys, there will undoubtedly be incredible amounts of money spent by super PACs favoring the president as well.

Why is the rise of super PACs such a concern? Isn’t it laudable that groups of people with an opinion can use their money to make their opinions known? It’s free speech, after all, right? In the same way that those anonymous comments sections on blogs are speech, sure. With loopholes that allow anonymity for donors, super PACs are embracing the low road, pumping out negative ads that should make even politicians blush. From the New Yorker:

Operated by veteran party apparatchiks, super-PACs are effectively mini-campaigns, employing more pollsters, more researchers, and more ad-makers for the purpose of going negative against the opposition — every [expletive] day. The rise of the super-PACs has completely reinvented the dynamics of negative campaigning, removing the consequences of factual inaccuracy by allowing the candidate a veneer of deniability, while multiplying a campaign’s effective manpower.

No matter the results of today’s primary, is there really a winner? Will 2012 be the first election where candidates are able to lie under the guise of claiming that they simply followed the law? Does the additional power the wealthy and privileged now have in democratic elections require moral reflection? What if that power is used to distort the truth and manipulate voters? What role should people of faith play in this national dialogue about money, access, and power, especially Christians, who are explicitly called to be a voice for the marginalized?

Many of us already have an ambivalent relationship with politics and government. A candidate may occasionally inspire us, but more often than not, we hold our noses and vote for the individuals who might inflict the least damage to our communities and nation. Though there is good reason for this attitude, many lawmakers and public servants want to do good, improve society. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of super PACs is that they will ultimately turn more people away from the democratic process, making them believe that politics is cynical and unworthy of their time and attention. The result will be the further degradation of the process, with even fewer, and wealthier, individuals controlling elections, parties, and platforms. (As I’m writing this column, the New York Times has published a report of super PAC donors’ contributions in the final three months of 2011. You can see for yourself what the few and the wealthy were up to at the end of last year.)

Politics has always been a pay to play game, and with super PACs, those who can pay the most will now reap ever-larger rewards.