The reversal of President Barack Obama’s decision to keep his hands off the fundraising efforts of his reelection campaign’s aligned super Political Action Committees (PACs) has raised a few eyebrows among campaign finance reform advocates.
This seems like a betrayal of Obama’s position that the relentless chase and dependence on “fat cat” donors to bankroll campaigns have gone way off the deep end.
In 2008, Obama said that he would raise the bulk of his campaign funds from small donors. He further said that he would not take a penny from lobbyist groups and he would back an overhaul of campaign financing rules.
Obama’s sharp attack on the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” decision — which essentially gave free license to corporations to dump money directly into partisan campaigns — was cheered by campaign finance reform advocates. This renewed hope in the expectation that Obama would push Democrats to enact proposed legislation that would blunt the court’s decision and restore checks on corporations as well as the financial industry’s power to sway elections.
So far that legislation has gone nowhere in Congress. But Obama’s reversal on super PACs is not a betrayal of principle — it is a reflection of the brutal reality that to run and keep the White House will cost a pretty penny.
There were two glaring things that again drove that brutal reality home to the White House. The first is that the GOP has rebounded from its anemic fundraising takes in 2008, and has drawn almost dead even with the Democrats in fundraising. A huge chunk of the money is coming from its corporate dominated super PACs.
The second is former Gov. Mitt Romney. He will likely be the GOP presidential nominee and is every bit the cash fundraising cow as Obama. According to recent reports, nearly 60 corporations and individuals dumped more than $100,000 into a super PAC backing Romney.
A typical contributor of hard money pouring in for Romney is his old outfit, Bain Capital. According to the Center for Public Integrity, current and former Bain executives and their relatives have shoved nearly $5 million toward organizations that back Romney’s presidential bid.
He’s also banked with tens of thousands of dollars from Walmart’s Walton family members and Koch family members. The heavy duty cash has poured in just to help Romney get the GOP nomination. It takes little imagination to figure that once he bags the nomination, the corporate and financial industry donors will radically up their ante for him.
The ideal is to make public financing the rule and the law for federal elections. In a perfect world, that would be the case and big money would not obscenely skew the election process toward those who can essentially pay the most for it.
But the Supreme Court decision effectively killed that ideal. It ensured that neither Obama nor any other presidential candidate can be competitive in a hard-fought primary and even harder fought general election campaign without the tens of millions that lobbyists, PACs, corporations, Wall Street and labor unions shove into a presidential candidate’s campaign coffers.
The 2008 presidential primary and general election proved this. Hillary Clinton was favored early on to bag the Democratic nomination. Her failure had nothing to do with campaign bumbles, policy stumbles or voter rejection. She simply ran out of money to be competitive with Obama in the smaller state primaries. That enabled Obama to rack up what ultimately proved to be an insurmountable delegate lead.
It was the same in the general election. Obama had a bulging campaign chest. Republican presidential foe John McCain didn’t. It was the financial advantage that Obama built up coming out of the primary battle with Clinton that allowed Obama to saturate the airwaves with his campaign pledges and assaults on McCain. None of this came cheap.
The 2012 campaign will not be a rerun of 2008. Romney with his cash-raising prowess from his solid corporate and financial industry ties has an advantage that McCain didn’t. But that’s not all. Romney will continue to try and turn the tables and pound Obama on his alleged financial and economic failures. He will ask the question Reagan asked Carter during a 1980 presidential debate, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
The question worked again when Obama asked it of the GOP in 2008. But it costs money, and a lot of it, to message the administration’s accomplishments on this pivotal issue and ultimately convince voters that the answer is yes.
The GOP gave Obama no choice but to go after “fat cat” donors to effectively get his message across and make the case for a second term. Romney will have just as much money to try and make the opposite case.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.