Commentary: Super PACs must be limited

"I've decided," said President Obama, in announcing that he would refuse to accept money from Democratic super PACs, "to fight with one arm tied behind my back."

Actually, the president didn't say that. But that is what some critics - on both the right and the left - would have preferred him to say.

What the president really announced this week was that he would reluctantly support donations to Democratic super PACs for his reelection campaign. Campaign officials said they had to be able to counteract the millions of dollars that would be spent by Republican super PACs to defeat Obama.

"We were faced with this situation as to whether we could afford to play by two sets of rules, and the answer is obviously no," said Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod this week. "That doesn't mean we believe this is the best way for the system to function."

The so-called super PACs were spawned by the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. Justices declared that the First Amendment prohibits government from placing limits on spending for political purposes by corporations and unions, overturning federal rules that had restricted the amount of cash businesses and unions could spend on political advertising.

If anyone still doubts that Citizens United would have an enormous impact on politics in America, they haven't been paying attention to the ongoing Republican primary campaign. To date, super PACs have spent over $40 million on ads in the GOP primary, mostly on harshly negative attack ads.

Technically, candidates themselves are barred from directly interacting with these PACs, but in most cases their surrogates run the operation behind the scenes. And while candidates can't direct how the money is spent, they can solicit money from donors to the PACs.

As an example of the humongous amount of money involved, the American Crossroads PAC, run by Karl Rove, former adviser to George W. Bush, has raised over $51 million. A PAC supporting Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, has raised $30 million.

One man, Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner and avid cheerleader for Israel, has pumped $10 million into Winning Our Future, a PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.

Obama has been an adamant opponent of the super PACs, saying they are a threat to democracy. Running for president in 2008, he strongly criticized the flood of money flowing into campaigns, saying he was committed to not taking PAC money.

So, in a real sense, his decision to support Democratic PACs repesents a reversal of whiplash proportions. And that is just how Republicans have characterized it.

"Just another broken promise," said House Speaker John Boehner, Tuesday.

Of course, it is hard to accuse Obama of hypocrisy when their own party's candidates are benefitting from super PACs themselves. Or at least it should be.

Some Democrats, including those who would like to see Congress undo Citizens United, have joined in lambasting Obama's about-face on the issue. They say he should take the high road, refuse super PAC money and set a shining example of rectitude.

And go down in flames. Some voters might appreciate Obama's consistency, but many others more likely would be swayed by the deluge of anti-Obama ads bankrolled by Republican super PACs.

Without tens of millions of dollars from Democratic PACs, those ads would go largely unanswered. As Obama campaign manager Jim Messina noted, it would be like "unilateral disarmament."

Let's face it, negative advertising works. That has been demonstrated time and time again. As much as voters like to say they don't like negative ads and aren't swayed by them, the results tell a different story.

Negative ads help define, or at least reinforce, the image of a candidate in the minds of voters. And that's especially true if candidates haven't effectively defined themselves already.

This tsunami of cash from well-heeled corporate interests and wealthy unions poses a challenge not only to candidates but also to voters. Is this how we want our elections to be decided? Is it good for the democratic process?

Obama, the enemy of super PACs, was right in saying they are poisonous to the process. Obama, the pragmatic candidate who wants to get reelected, may have no choice but to embrace them.

But we have seen enough already to be sickened by the results of this decision, and the campaign is barely under way. We, the people, ought to demand that our elected representatives find the legal means to limit the amount of cash that the richest Americans can funnel into campaigns no matter who wins in the fall.


James Werrell is the opinion page editor for the Rock Hill Herald. He can be reached by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.