Commentary: Will Colbert Nation make its point about super PACs in S.C. primary?

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJanuary 19, 2012 

What's more likely to call attention to the outrage that is the super PAC: a bunch of Occupiers showing up at federal courthouses Friday — or Colbert Nation upending Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary by voting for Herman Cain?

Two years ago Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed super PAC funding on American voters by ruling that key restrictions on campaign spending amounted to censorship of corporations and labor unions that wanted to pour big money into electing candidates. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court said corporations, which are created strictly by the laws that shield them, have the same free speech rights as people, who are created by a power greater than the state.

Even though dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out that corporations "have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires" and don't belong to "We the People" for whom the Constitution was written, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has perpetuated the myth that corporations are people, too, my friend.

Rather than giving corporations a human face, Citizens United has spawned lavishly endowed political action committees with names like Restore Our Future, Make Us Great Again, American Crossroads and Priorities USA. They're taking advantage of the rules -- or lack thereof -- that let companies and individuals raise and pour unlimited money into elections, sometimes without letting the public know who's behind it all.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency, reports that "dark money spending to elect or defeat candidates" topped $454 million in 2010 elections, and super PACs already have spent more than $24 million on the presidential race.

The Supreme Court majority seemed to think that the unrestricted campaign funding wouldn't be corrupting because it would be independent of candidates and the sources of money would be disclosed. So naive they were.

Even though super PACs aren't supposed to coordinate with candidates, their "independence" can be largely nodding and winking.

Make Us Great Again, one of the super PACs supporting Rick Perry, is powered by primo lobbyist Mike Toomey, the governor's former chief of staff, who is reported to own a private island with lead Perry campaign strategist Dave Carney.

One of the brains behind American Crossroads is former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove. That group asked the FEC whether it could sponsor ads featuring members of Congress up for re-election without it being illegal coordination.

Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central faux pundit, wrote to the commission endorsing Rove's request: "A ruling that allows outside groups to produce ads with the candidate's cooperation, themes and message," Colbert said, would "prove to our nation's critics that America is a country that still makes something: strained rationalizations."

Colbert has made a running parody of the absurd depths to which campaign funding has fallen. It's brilliant, skewering satire. His super PAC, funded by viewer donations, started as Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow and ran an ad in which low-profile GOP candidate Buddy Roemer got around the "coordination" rule by saying it was an issue ad he wished he weren't in.

Because Colbert wanted to run in the Republican presidential primary of his home state of South Carolina, he handed his super PAC to fellow late-night comic Jon Stewart and renamed it The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC -- all under the grinning eye of his lawyer, Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who advised George H.W. Bush and John McCain.

Colbert couldn't get on the ballot, but former candidate Herman Cain is still listed. So Colbert has been mischievously pumping his viewers who are registered South Carolina voters to support him by marking their ballots for Cain. It's a deliciously devious scheme with the potential to mobilize real political action.

A group called Move to Amend is protesting Citizens United in a more conventional way, organizing an Occupy the Courts day for Friday and promoting the idea of a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations and labor unions don't have the same rights as human beings.

It seems like a sincere exercise of the time-honored right to free assembly, with events planned for federal courthouses in more than 130 cities, from Dallas and San Antonio to Missoula, Mont., Central Islip, N.Y., and Dothan, Ala.

But forgive me for doubting they'll rock the system. For goodness' sake, their New York City march is planned for the height of rush hour, with an evening rally after the courthouse has closed for the day.

I'm expecting more impact from Colbert's subversives.


Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

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