Sam Stein Headshot

David Axelrod On Sanctioning Secretly Funded Groups: It's Not Healthy 'But It's The System We Have'

Posted: Updated:
AXELROD

WASHINGTON -- David Axelrod, the president’s senior communications adviser, spent much of the 2010 election cycle warning against the rise of anonymously funded, conservative non-government groups, going so far as to frame them as a threat to democracy itself.

On Sunday, he blessed the emergence of those same organizations on the Democratic side of the aisle, calling it a bitter but necessary pill to swallow for both the party and campaign finance reformers.

“Let’s be clear," Axelrod said on "Meet the Press." "This independent group that was formed was formed in response to the ones that spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last campaign to defeat Democratic candidates [with] undisclosed, large contributions. And we tried to pass a law [the DISCLOSE Act] through the Congress that would force … all groups to disclose who was giving them the money so the public could see. It got 59 Democratic votes in the United States Senate, 41 Republicans blocked it. And so, of course, now there’s a reaction to what happened, because Democrats are sitting there saying, ‘We can’t play under two sets of rules.’ … We should walk down to Capitol Hill and urge them to pass the law and that will govern both Republicans and Democrats and everybody will be playing under one set of rules.”

"I don’t think this is healthy," he added. "I don’t think this is good. But it is the system we have. And you can’t expect one side to operate under one set of rules and the other side to operate under another."

The idea that Democrats are leaning on outside government groups as a response to being flooded by them in 2010 does, in some respect, ignore the massive amounts of money union groups put into those midterm races. For campaign finance reform advocates -- chief among them former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) -- it also strikes a poor strategic note: forfeiting the political advantages that come with the moral high ground.

But for the White House and allied officials and campaign committees, it's not all that difficult a decision. The potential to run tens of millions of dollars worth of television ads attacking Republican candidates is obviously alluring. But so is the capacity to sustain a major opposition research operation, which, according to officials familiar with the plans for these outside groups, will be an organizational imperative for the presidential cycle.