POLITICS

Hot Trend For 2016: Even More Extravagant Super PAC Lies And Corruption!

04/22/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
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According to the Associated Press, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is poised to "give [the] traditional campaign a makeover." Which sounds exciting! I think we can all agree the "traditional campaign" could sure use a touch-up or two. So what are Bush's people going to do? They're going to coordinate their efforts with their Right To Rise super PAC, all day, every day, as early and as often as they can.

But wait! "Is that allowed?" you are thinking. "I thought campaigns weren't allowed to coordinate with super PACs." Yes, that's probably what you were told about this brave new future of total campaign finance corruption.

But rules were made to be broken, and most of the rules governing these super PACs were created already cracked and weak as hell, so this is basically their natural progression. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of the Associated Press' anonymous "Republican familiar with the strategy," who says, "This is the natural progression of the rules as they are set out by the FEC." You can basically expect any candidate who doesn't want to lose this election to follow Bush's example.

Naturally, arriving at this conclusion requires a bit of between-the-lines reading. But it's not like I am closely parsing the lines of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to make the case that Robert Frost was writing about Santa Claus. This just requires one to examine the available facts and apply a modicum of common sense. Here is what we know, from the Associated Press, about this campaign "makeover":

The traditional presidential campaign may be getting a dramatic makeover in Jeb Bush's bid for the White House as he prepares to turn some of a campaign's central functions over to a separate political organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money.

The concept, in development for months as the former Florida governor has raised tens of millions of dollars for his Right to Rise super PAC, would endow that organization not just with advertising on Bush's behalf, but with many of the duties typically conducted by a campaign.

Should Bush move ahead as his team intends, it is possible that for the first time a super PAC created to support a single candidate would spend more than the candidate's campaign itself — at least through the primaries. Some of Bush's donors believe that to be more than likely.

You should read this as, "The Bush campaign will be coordinating with their super PAC out the yin-yang."

Come on, now. No credible modern presidential campaign is going to turn over its central functions to an entity with whom it cannot coordinate. No credible modern presidential campaign is going to allow an entity it cannot coordinate with to spend the bulk of its money. It's literally insane to believe that.

The official Eat The Press position on super PACs has always been that the notion there's a firewall between campaigns and these big-spending organizations is an outrageous lie that only the most naive little fawns in the forest could possibly believe. The official Eat The Press position is that there's no distinction of any kind between a candidate, the campaign and the actions of a candidate's allied super PAC entities. This Bush "campaign makeover" only proves this position is correct, and that all political journalists should adopt a similar position immediately.

Further reporting from the National Journal bears this out. In their piece, "Trading Places," Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher note the extent to which the top strategic minds in the game aren't heading to work on campaigns, they're signing up for a ride on the super PAC gravy train. As Alberta and Goldmacher note:

Some 2016 candidates have already made their decisions. Rand Paul recently tapped Jesse Benton, a family member and longtime associate who ran his Senate campaign as well as his father's 2012 presidential bid, to take the wheel of America's Liberty PAC. An alliance of super PACs supporting Ted Cruz have been organized by close friends, including Texas attorney Dathan Voelter, and sources close to Cruz expect him to designate a top political lieutenant to take over the reportedly $31 million outfit. And Carly Fiorina's super PAC, Carly for America, is being led by Steve DeMaura, a friend and associate who formerly was the political director of Fiorina's other political action committee.

In any previous cycle, it's a near-certainty that these people and others tapped to run a candidate's super PAC would have served in a principal position on the campaign -- as a senior strategist, or political director, or even perhaps campaign manager. "Before the super PAC era, a guy like Steve would have a very high position in her presidential campaign," Keith Appell, a prominent GOP consultant and senior adviser to Carly For America, says of DeMaura. "But now super PACs give candidates the flexibility to distribute top talent to other places where they can really make a difference. … I think candidates are going to take that chance and put more talented people at the super PAC, because they'll have more opportunities and more resources there. That's already happening, and it's going to continue to happen."

This is obviously also where a mofeaux goes to get paid, son. A candidate can only raise money in $2,700 chunks. The super PAC is where you go to raise tall dollars from the highest rollers. If you want a choice cut of the boodle, a well-heeled strategist has to head for the dark money.

Now, Alberta and Goldmacher still haven't left the cuckoo land where candidates and super PACs don't coordinate. "Super PAC heads are not allowed to coordinate strategy with the actual campaign," they write, elsewhere insisting that candidates in this arrangement need to find "someone with whom they can continually cooperate without ever being able to coordinate -- or ever ask for advice" to run the super PAC. Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP strategist and television round-table regular who is expected to run Right To Rise for Bush, is presented in the piece as a guy who will never be able to converse with the candidate again, forced to operate in a "cone of silence."

No, wrong, no. There is no way a presidential candidate is going hand their BFF the keys to the campaign, the lion's share of the money, and then say, "Now, we have to avoid each other until November of 2016, but let's catch up after the election is over, because I'll want to hear about the things you did for my campaign." This is not to be believed.

And yet this arrangement is portrayed in the National Journal as a "complicated" chance these candidates and their super PAC machers are taking. The Associated Press similarly characterizes this as something of a daring stunt, noting that the "architects of [Bush's] plan" believe the super PAC's "ability to legally raise unlimited amounts of money outweighs its primary disadvantage, that it cannot legally coordinate its actions with Bush or his would-be campaign staff." An overawed Center for Competitive Politics head David Keating shows up in the piece saying, "Nothing like this has been done before. ... It will take a high level of discipline to do it."

To which I say: Snap out of it, you guys!

slapping

We've already learned that campaigns coordinate with super PACs, they've just hitherto done so in a cutesy manner. As Paul Blumenthal reported, several Senate candidates during the 2014 election cycle provided the world with strange, extended videos of nothing but b-roll footage, so that their affiliated super PACs would never want for golden-hour camera shots of their candidates shaking hands and walking in slow motion and handling files. And shortly after the 2014 election, CNN's Chris Moody broke the story of how outside groups established what amounted to secret numbers stations on Twitter, allowing for campaigns and super PACs to "share internal polling data" with one another.

In both cases, the FEC responded with little more than a "¯\_(ツ)_/¯". So it makes sense that campaigns in this election cycle would simply push the envelope further, knowing full well that their coordination will be both near-impossible to suss out, and unlikely to carry any consequences in even a worse-case scenario.

This is not going to even remotely require a "high level of discipline" to pull off.

But why does this matter? Well, you have to remember what a super PAC specifically allows. These organizations exist to give mega-wealthy donors the opportunity to contribute exorbitant sums of money to subsidize a presidential campaign without fear their name will ever be attached to the way money is spent. This is a high-stakes, high-dollar, completely opaque investment, and those providing the ducats expect that no effort will be spared to get the win. So there's a better than even chance that what oozes forth from the tentacles of these super PACs will be the really seedy, dirty, gross stuff that would -- or should! -- shame the people dredging it up.

That's why every time someone mentions there are allegedly "rules" that prevent campaigns from coordinating with super PACs, you need to ask, "But who are these rules protecting?" Typically, this non-coordination requirement is presented as something that protects you -- Oh, sorry about the total lack of transparency in the campaign finance system, but rest assured the candidates can't coordinate with these entities. This is the precise wrong way to think about it. The "no coordination" rule exclusively protects the candidates from having to take responsibility for the irresponsible stuff their campaign does.

Here's a fine example of what I'm talking about. Back during the 2012 campaign, a President Barack Obama-allied super PAC called Priorities USA Action, run by Obama's Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton, produced an advertisement that alleged that Mitt Romney killed a woman. According to the story this super PAC told, Romney's Bain Capital shut down a GST Steel plant, which cost a man named Joe Soptic his job and, by extension, the health care of Soptic's wife, who subsequently succumbed to cancer. The ad was an extravagant lie, ably penetrated by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler. Which means that what Priorities USA Action did was shameful and gross. But the mythical firewall between candidates and super PACs protected Obama from any backlash, like so:

Multiple attempts to elicit reaction from the Obama campaign have also been unsuccessful. Robert Gibbs, senior aide to the Obama campaign, would not condemn the ad when pressed on its accuracy in a Wednesday appearance on MSNBC.

"This is an ad by an entity not controlled by the campaign. I certainly don't know the specifics of this man's case," Gibbs said.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told CNN that it is illegal for the campaign to coordinate with Priorities USA Action.

"By law, we don't have anything to do with their ads," she said. "I don't know the facts of when Joe Soptic's wife got sick or when she died. But as I said before, I do know the facts of what Mitt Romney did with GS Steel. I do know the facts of how Joe Soptic lost his job, lost his health care."

Bill Burton? Shucks, we hardly know the guy, sorry! You say he's got an ad out? Well, you know, it's a free country I guess, especially if you have a pile of secret money laying around that wants to be spent.

For as long as these heinous arrangements have existed, those who've sought to rein in the vulgar amount of money in politics have darkly warned of a coming brutal correction. Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) termed Obama's embrace of the super PAC system a "dance with the devil." His partner in campaign finance reform, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), has predicted that super PACs would lead to a "scandal" that would "destroy the political process."

"Because they won't stop," said McCain. "Because they won't stop." And right on cue, the 2016 cycle ushers in the most significant escalation in this game, in which we are asked to believe that despite being given the majority of the talent, the money and the responsibilities for running a presidential campaign, there will continue to be no coordination -- zero, nil, the null set! -- between candidates and their dark money mills. Don't you believe it.

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