The campaign trail is ringing with pious denunciations of super PACs’ massive spending on presidential candidates, which would have been flatly illegal just a few years ago. More whining from campaign finance reformers? Actually, the condemnations are coming from none other than candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Hypocrisy, it is often said, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. But this is getting ridiculous. This week the former House speaker declared that attack ads from shadowy groups were bad for America. “Ask yourself,” he asked an Iowa town meeting, “do you really want to reward politics as usual, negativity as usual, attack as usual, consultant as usual, fundraising from Wall Street millionaires as usual?” Romney, in turn, called super PACs “a disaster.” “Campaign finance law has made a mockery of our political campaign season,” Romney said Tuesday morning on MSNBC. “We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super PACs.”
Decades old bans on corporate and union campaign spending were overturned last year by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Other court rulings, together with Federal Election Commission inaction, have essentially combined to deregulate nearly all campaign spending. Individuals are limited in their campaign gifts, and corporations and unions are barred from donating directly to candidates. But spending by independent committees has long been unlimited. Now corporations can join individuals in giving those groups unlimited sums. And in the latest, most craven twist, candidates themselves can attend fundraisers for supposedly independent groups, so long as they personally do not urge giving unlimited amounts.
The result is that each candidate is backed by at least one super PAC controlled by close political allies of the candidate. Now, with theoretically unlimited funds, super PACs can do the dirty work of politics. Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney committee, is paying more for ads savaging Gingrich than the entire GOP field spent in the Iowa caucuses put together in 2008, as Talking Points Memo noted. Gingrich supporters, in turn, were buoyed by reports of a $20 million gift from a casino owner to Time for Newt. Hopes were dashed when mogul Sheldon Adelson denied the contribution.
It’s tempting to assume that these candidates are speaking out against super PACs because it is briefly helpful for them to do so. Gingrich, outspent, can try to delegitimize the spending arrayed against him. Romney can distance himself from the bludgeoning being done in his name. In the words of Saint Augustine, “Lord, Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
And the candidates may quickly pirouette from their newfound stance. It would not be the first time. In 1994 Romney declared, “These kinds of associations between money and politics in my view are wrong. And for that reason I would like to have campaign spending limits.” Gingrich, for his part, famously shook hands with President Clinton at a 1996 town hall meeting in New Hampshire and pledged to enact reform, though he quietly backed away when his House caucus rebelled.
Hypocrisy is hardly a partisan phenomenon: President Obama decries the impact of lobbyists and big money. Yet he became the first major party candidate to refuse public funding for the general election campaign and then proposed no reforms to resuscitate the presidential public financing system established in the wake of Watergate.
But perhaps, just perhaps, we are starting to see a dawning unease among politicians of both parties. Candidates covet control over their image, message, and political strategy. Suddenly they find themselves in a dystopian alternate universe in which politicians and even parties are supplanted by lobbying groups, shadowy funders, and self-appointed strategists. Politicians know full well that big campaign spending often comes with a legislative agenda attached. They know who is backing them, and what they really want, even if the public doesn’t know—yet.
If the candidates don’t join the effort to change the system, they will quickly regret it. As John F. Kennedy said, “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger—ended up inside.”