Which is a strange spectacle, given that both candidates strongly supported the Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for these shadowy organizations to wreak havoc on the presidential campaign.
During Monday night’s debate in South Carolina, Romney and Gingrich complained about each other’s organizations, which thanks to the high court can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates as long as there’s no overt coordination with the campaigns.
“I’ll tell you, there have been some—there have been some attacks on me that have just been outrageous and completely inaccurate and have been shown to be inaccurate. That’s the nature of the process. I hope it ends,” Romney said. He returned to the point later, saying: "We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth … I think this has to change."
Gingrich has adopted the same reasoning, suggesting that super PACs are out of control this election season.
"These super PACs have huge amounts of money," he said. "They're totally irresponsible, totally secret, and I think it's a problem," he said last week in New Hampshire.
Yet the irony wasn’t lost on political reporters that both men have been two of the biggest beneficiaries of campaign-finance decisions by the Supreme Court that effectively created Super PACs. Both supported the controversial 2010 ruling in Citizens United that government should not restrict political speech in the form of campaign ads, which has flooded the attacks financed by anonymous donors.
So what did these Republicans have to say at the time? Gingrich called Citizens United “a great victory for free speech.” Romney called it “the correct decision.” This went unmentioned by the Fox News moderators.
“Super PACs are a direct consequence of Citizens United,” says Kenneth Gross, an election-law lawyer. “You can’t endorse the Citizens United decision and not endorse super PACs. Either they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the case law or you cannot reconcile their comments.”
At its core, the ruling legalized unlimited campaign spending for corporations and unions, which formerly had been limited by campaign-finance laws. Candidates and their campaigns have long been restricted by donation limits and disclosure requirements—such as having to say they approve every message—but Citizens United effectively allowed corporations, or advocacy groups registered as corporations, to sponsor political messaging.
Asked about Romney’s apparent reversal on Citizens United, campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said the candidate still supports the right to make political donations but that laws limiting such donations are too restrictive, which, in turn, pushes political money away from campaigns that act responsibly and toward super PACs that sometimes don’t.
“Governor Romney opposes these laws and believes it would be better to allow supporters to contribute what they wish directly to campaigns so that candidates can control the content of their messages and take responsibility for them,” Williams said.
Gingrich’s campaign didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
The growth of these organizations has added substantial firepower to several of the Republican campaigns (President Obama, as well, has a super PAC run by former White House aides that acts largely on his behalf). According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which highlights money’s influence on politics, the pro-Romney super PAC (run by former Romney aides and financed by his donors) has spent $7.8 million boosting the former Massachusetts governor and criticizing his opponents. Winning Our Future, the group acting on behalf of Gingrich, has spent $4.2 million. Rick Perry’s group, Make Us Great Again, has spent about $3.8 million.
Campaign-finance lawyer Cleta Mitchell says political donation laws often are oversimplified, and that Romney and Gingrich’s positions make sense. “If you really look at the law, the biggest problem they’re lamenting is the aggregate contribution limit to campaigns, which drives money toward these super PACs. That’s the real problem—and nothing about that was ever addressed by Citizens United.”