WASHINGTON -- In Monday night's GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney attempted to sidestep questions about a pro-Romney super PAC by stating there was absolutely no way he could have stopped his former aides who operate the super PAC from running negative, often false or misleading ads assailing his opponents. Romney declared that he wished that super PACs "would just disappear."
In fact, the former Massachusetts governor has not only not pressured his former aides and donors to stop or temper the outside effort; he has offered material and verbal support to the super PAC, called Restore Our Future.
Last July, Romney appeared at an event for donors and potential donors to Restore Our Future, where he spoke briefly. On "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Jan. 3, he explained, "[O]f course the super PAC that is working for me -- I know the people there. Of course I helped raise money for it."
According to some reports, Restore Our Future raised approximately $18 million from July through the end of 2011, more than the $12.2 million it raised in the first six months of last year.
By speaking at the Restore Our Future event, Romney took advantage of a loophole created by the Federal Election Commission that allows politicians to solicit money for super PACs so long as they personally ask for no more than the maximum $5,000 donation that candidates are allowed to raise for their own campaigns. It's hard to see his action as anything less than encouragement of the super PAC, despite his comments this week.
"We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth," Romney said during the Jan. 16 Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate. "Let people make contributions they want to make to campaigns. Let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words and not have this strange situation we have of people out there who support us, who run ads we don't like, we would like to take off the air, they are outrageous, and yet they are out there supporting us. And by law we aren't allowed to talk to them."
This claimed helplessness is quite the opposite of what the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency did in the 2008 general election. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both discouraged spending by independent groups in the 2008 election by making public appeals to donors to give only to their campaign committees or national party organizations.
Penny Pritzker, Obama's national finance director in 2008, told donors to direct their funds to the candidate or the party and not to give to independent electoral efforts. Obama spokesman Bill Burton, who now runs a pro-Obama super PAC, said at the time, "From the beginning of this race, Obama has told supporters that if they want to help his effort, they should do so through his campaign. ... And he means exactly what he says."
As for McCain, Trevor Potter, counsel to the Republican's 2008 campaign, told The Huffington Post, "When an independent group first appeared, he cut it off at the knees -- he told the press that he opposed the effort, that he thought such independent efforts were bad for our democratic system, and that anyone who donated would never get in the door of a McCain White House. It never raised a penny."
Although independent groups still spent millions of dollars in the 2008 election, neither Obama nor McCain nurtured and encouraged them in quite the way that Romney has done for Restore Our Future.
"It appears to be a separate organization, but these guys are coordinating fundraising and it's run by his former campaign aides," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks super PAC spending. "This is the problem with super PACs. It gives candidates this plausible deniability to say, 'I wish they wouldn't do that.'"