WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision to drop his opposition to super PACs and encourage donors to write checks to these well-financed entities has again raised one of the defining frictions of his administration. At what point are Obama and his supporters comfortable with political pragmatism trumping policy principles?
It's a question poised in different incarnations before. Allowing Guantanamo Bay to remain open, signing off on indefinite detention of detainees, abandoning the public health insurance option, and agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts were all instances in which the president reluctantly abandoned his preferred position for political or legislative expediency. Each, to a certain degree, ignited a firestorm of outrage from Obama supporters only to be spun off -- over time and not by all -- as calculated trade-offs.
What stands in the latest, reluctant reversal from the president is how little initial outrage it's engendered. The most common refrain from Democrats -- centrist and progressive alike -- has been a variation of "He had to," or, more bluntly, "Thank God."
There are, of course, very serious-minded critics of the president's new super PAC posture. Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is the most vocal of this bunch, arguing in a phone interview with The Huffington Post that it will seriously damage his brand as a scourge of the special and moneyed-interests.
"It guts the president's message and the Democratic Party's message," Feingold said. "We are doing very well right now. The president is doing brilliantly. This is no time to blunt that message by starting to play this game ... I am a supporter of the president. I will continue to support the president. But on this one I couldn't disagree more."
Unlike when then-Sen. Obama abandoned his support of the public financing system during his 2008 run for the White House, there were few who echo Feingold's criticism.
"Everyone on the Democratic side, from President Obama on down, has worked to reform these rules and get rid of Super PACs, and will probably redouble efforts to do so now," said Brian Young, a Democratic strategist at Well & Lighthouse who has done work with super PACs. "I know that I personally am a big fan of Senator Feingold's efforts and others on this score. But until we're successful in changing the rules, avoiding Super PACs would be like a UFC fighter announcing he was making his sport safer by only using his hands and never hitting anyone on the mat. If done unilaterally, it really only improves the safety of his opponents."
All of which is not to suggest that there won't be a price to pay for the president; just that, unlike previous reluctant reversals, the price isn't likely to involve bleeding support from the base. Campaign finance politics, it seems, don't get the heart racing.
Take, for instance, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of the president's harshest critics when it comes to the topic of abandoning principle. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the group urged Obama to rely on a grassroots army for his reelection campaign, without formally criticizing his super PAC reversal.
"The most authentic activism and communication will be done by genuinely grassroots groups and actual candidates, as opposed to super PACs that don’t have any memberships," said the group's co-founder Adam Green.
Indeed, throughout Tuesday, it was the Republican National Committee that took swipes, branding Obama a hypocrite (he had, after all, called super PACs a "threat to democracy") and releasing new swag to sell to voters: Obama 2012 adorned flip-flops.
All of which suits the Obama campaign just fine. A few days of hell from RNC is an easy trade-off for the millions of dollars that now could find their way to allied super PACs.
"The damage [to the president's brand] would be greater if we did nothing," one top campaign consultant argued, evoking the flood of negative advertising that would have been unmatched had Obama not given the super PAC green light to his donors.
As for the sub-element of Feingold's criticism -- that the president has made himself vulnerable to the whims of moneyed interests -- that has proven tougher for Obama supporters. The president's aides have said he remains committed to ending super PACs (possibly through a constitutional amendment) and is eager to push transparency legislation (in lines of the DISCLOSE Act) in the interim.
But those aides also could not say, definitively, that lobbyists would not be able to donate to the super PAC. Nor could they promise full transparency with respect to donors: 501(c)(4) groups can donate to super PACs without revealing their own sources of money. And the fact still remains that Obama's reversal was also an admission: without big money donors giving unlimited amounts to his allies, his reelection is imperiled.
"What we think is going to win the election is the organization we are building on the ground," said one senior campaign official. "It is going to be our supporters and communities persuading their networks to support the president that is going to give us the edge. But we are not going to unilaterally disarm on the air and we are not going to allow our supporters on the ground to be drowned out."
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