I have nits to pick with a few parts of Jim VandeHei's column "The political transformation of Barack Obama," but I'd rather talk about the way he takes on the whole super PAC issue with startling candor.
As you know, President Obama has bestowed his "reluctant blessing" upon a super PAC affiliated with his re-election campaign. This is a significant reversal in position, whether or not you accept the fact that the only way to avoid getting blown out in the general election is to fight on the same playing field, instead of making a principled stand. Of course, as VandeHei points out, Obama really, really took a stand on this issue back in 2007. This is what he had to say about the issue of money in politics:
“You can’t say yesterday you don’t believe in them and today, you are having three-quarters of a million dollars being spent for you. You can’t just talk the talk. The easiest thing in the world is to talk about change during election time. Everybody talks about change during election time. You have got to look at how they will act when it’s not convenient, when it’s hard. And the one thing I’m proud of is my track record is strong on this and I’ve walked the walk.”
Obviously, on the matter of super PACs, Obama has opted to do what he views as politically convenient rather than what he believes to be right. But as VandeHei notes, favoring what's convenient over what's right is a deeply entrenched aspect of Beltway culture:
A little secret about Washington: Everyone loves this decision. Democrats get more money, strategists and pollsters and ad-makers get bigger checks; Republicans will use this to call Obama a hypocrite and to scare donors into giving them more money, which in turns means more money for their strategists, pollsters and ad-makers; and the media make more money as all of this is funneled into TV and Web ads. Incestuous, isn’t it?
There is some danger for Obama of a public backlash. But everyone in Washington — with the exception of the good souls at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, Sunlight Foundation and a few other do-gooders — lives by the creed that no one wins or loses elections on campaign fundraising as a political issue. Just ask John McCain — who is wholeheartedly backing Mitt Romney, the candidate whose record-breaking super PAC fundraising is trashing the legacy of the overturned McCain-Feingold law.
I'd say that's just about right. Outside of the "do-gooder" groups that VandeHei names, the rest of the institutional media think super PACs are just fine. They're just another piece of interesting fauna in the political habitat. Insofar as they affect the horse race -- as proxy battlebots for Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, or as the essential ingredient of Rick Santorum's "David vs. Goliath" story -- the media stays interested in them. Should a scandal of some kind emerge -- as John McCain has predicted -- you can count on the press to chase the shiny-shiny with all deliberate speed.
But as for the underlying corruption of super PACs, the media just doesn't have much to say about it. And that's striking, given the fact that the way Obama's flip-flop is discussed implies there is corruption at the heart of the issue. If Obama is a hypocrite for forsaking his principled stand on super PACs, the takeaway is that opposing them is the principled thing to do.
What, then, about those who never demonstrated principles on the matter? By and large, they get a pass. As VandeHei notes, "There is some danger for Obama of a public backlash." But only Obama is endangered, because he is the one who spoke out against them. The super PACs backing Romney and Gingrich have already committed the worst sins and demonstrated the worst tendencies of this new world of campaign financing, but it hasn't resulted in any political cost for the respective candidates. Nor shall it ever.
This just goes to show that in Washington, it's much worse to have forsaken -- or to have failed at meeting -- one's principles than it is to show up lacking in them. Mitt Romney never demonstrated any respect for the work of John McCain and Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, and McCain obviously really respects that. The media "secretly loves" Obama's decision to use a super PAC because of the potential for added dynamics to their political coverage, but they're going to spend a few days pretending to be outraged, anyway. And, of course, the thing that undergirds this entire discussion of Obama's "political transformation" is the fact that he pledged to foster a different political culture in 2008, only to show up in Washington and learn that no one was interested in playing along. Who gets pilloried for it? The guy who wanted to foster a more civil discourse, naturally.
This is a pretty perverse political culture we have here, but I'm guessing you've already figured that out.
GO READ THE WHOLE THING:
The political transformation of Barack Obama [Politico]
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