For Obama, The SuperPAC Rubber Has Met The Road
The late conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. once said that "idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive."
That seems to be the political calculation being made by President Obama and his campaign team when it comes to opposing superPACs.
Team Obama reversed course late Monday when campaign manager Jim Messina urged donors to help pro-Obama superPACs raise supermoney, and said administration officials will be free to help with the fundraising.
The math was an apparent wake-up call for Democrats: Priorities USA Action, which was founded by two former Obama aides, pulled in just $4.4 million last year, while the superPAC supporting GOP front-runner Mitt Romney raked in nearly $18 million.
More broadly, new fundraising reports show pro-Republican superPACs have pulled well ahead of those supporting Democrats. The biggest GOP groups raised more than $50 million last year, while Democratic groups — including Priorities USA — garnered less than $20 million.
Obama's campaign had formerly kept Priorities USA at a distance as the president himself railed against the superPAC establishment.
The climb down from that perch has been a steep one.
Days after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that abolished some limits on campaign donations, Obama said in his State of the Union address — as the black-robed justices looked on — that the ruling had "reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections."
Six months later, as Obama pushed a bill that would have barred foreign funding in federal elections and firmed up disclosure requirements, he was even more explicit in his opposition, saying the court's ruling allowed the purchase of millions of dollars in political TV ads with no disclosure on who was paying for them.
"Now, imagine the power this will give special interests over politicians," he said. "Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don't vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign. And all too often, no one will actually know who's really behind those ads."
But Monday's missive from Messina said Democrats couldn't afford to "unilaterally disarm" as the GOP nominee enjoyed the fruits of unlimited spending. "Therefore," he wrote, "the campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight of the GOP Super PAC."
Obama himself laid the groundwork for the reversal during an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer that aired earlier Monday.
"If you ask me, would I love to take some of the big money out of politics, I would," the president said. "Unfortunately, right now, partly because of Supreme Court rulings and a bunch of decisions out there, it is very hard to be able to get your message out without having some resources."
In the end, there was essentially zero political upside to standing on principle and not trying to maximize campaign cash, says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"It was inevitable," he says. "As we begin to see the Romney general election take shape and the willingness of donors to contribute in denominations of millions of dollars to that effort, you can't ignore that reality.
"I would say this is all about pragmatism and political expediency."
While the superPAC about-face opens the president up to accusations of hypocrisy, it's more likely to hurt him with Democrats than Republicans, says Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia University professor who specializes in election law.
"It's not that [Obama] will pay a price from his Republican rivals, but that the good-government groups that otherwise support Obama might be uncomfortable with this."
Updated 3:15 p.m.
On Tuesday's All Things Considered, NPR's Peter Overby also notes that good-government groups have found "a bright spot" in the Obama campaign's statement that the president would back a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.
Overby also raises another question: "Will wealthy donors deliver" for Obama?
"There is this self-loathing relationship that Democrats seem to have with outside independent activity that has got to have an impact ... on donor attitudes," says Steven Law, head of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, organizations founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove. The groups spent millions last year attacking Obama's policies.
As Overby notes, "it's those attitudes that the Obama campaign hopes to reverse, just nine months out from the election."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama and his re-election team have reversed course. They're now encouraging big donors to finance a pro-Obama superPAC. The president has, up to now, scorned the unregulated money that superPACs have been able to raise since 2010 and the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
NPR's Peter Overby reports that the change came in response to conservative groups raising tens of millions of dollars for the presidential election.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign's press secretary, said the campaign couldn't fight a battle with two sets of rules.
BEN LABOLT: In which the Republican nominee benefits from unlimited spending, and Democrats unilaterally disarm.
OVERBY: He took a swipe at two conservatives in particular, billionaires David and Charles Koch. They've been rallying other wealthy donors for an anti-Obama effort.
LABOLT: We can't allow oil billionaires to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV attacking the president so that they can maintain their tax breaks and their subsidies for themselves.
OVERBY: One group supported by the Kochs, the Tax Exempt Americans for Prosperity, ran nearly $6 million worth of TV ads in 2011. And serious money also flows to the superPACs in multiples of 500,000 or a million dollars from the wealthy, corporations and unions. But the pro-Obama PAC hasn't been a player. Last year, Priorities USA Action raised just $4.4 million.
Two-thirds of the cash came from two donors, film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Service Employees International Union. But the rules that keep campaigns and superPACS from coordinating their ads don't apply to the fundraising side and now, the Obama campaign's finance team is free to help Priorities USA Action. Administration officials are being called on as well although the president, vice president, and their wives will keep their distance.
Again, Ben LaBolt.
LABOLT: Let me be very clear on what campaign officials and White House officials and Cabinet officials will be doing. They will not be soliciting funds. They'll solely be expressing support for the Priorities superPAC and its mission, which is to re-elect the president.
OVERBY: Pragmatic as it may be to embrace the superPAC, it runs counter to a position that President Obama took in 2010. That was when he blasted the Citizens United decision. It came in a State of the Union address, with several Supreme Court justices sitting there just weeks after they had handed down the ruling.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.
OVERBY: Mr. Obama is a longtime advocate of tighter rules for political money, but four years ago, he rejected public financing, the first major party nominee ever to do so. His would-be allies in the reform fight today expressed disappointment.
DAVID DONNELLY: We think this was an inevitable move, although not a great one.
OVERBY: David Donnelly is director of the Public Campaign Action Fund.
DONNELLY: I think President Obama's record on reform issues has fallen short from the rhetoric that he laid out in his campaign in 2008. There's no question about that.
OVERBY: The good government groups did find a bright spot. The campaign says Mr. Obama would back a constitutional amendment, quote, "if need be," unquote, to undo Citizens United. At the campaign, Ben LaBolt says grassroots supporters want a superPAC to counter big spending conservative groups. But here's another question. Will the wealthy donors deliver?
At least one fundraising expert is skeptical. Steven Law is head of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, organizations co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove. Crossroads GPS spent millions last year attacking Mr. Obama's policies. Law said this in an interview last week.
STEVEN LAW: There is this self-loathing relationship that Democrats seem to have with outside independent activity that has got to have an impact, I think, on donor attitudes.
OVERBY: And it's those attitudes that the Obama campaign hopes to reverse just nine months out from the election. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.