It's early days yet in the post-Citizens United era, and most of the nation is still in a very naive place. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once warned that "that there will be huge scandals associated with this huge flood of money," is our Tiresias, just kicking back and waiting for his prophecies to be fulfilled. And the machinations between campaigns and their super PAC arms churn ever on.
But maybe everyone is slowly starting to awaken. Take, for example, this Bloomberg story published Friday by Michael C. Bender, titled "Jeb Bush and His Favorite Strategist Try to Win Without Speaking." That "favorite strategist" is one Mike Murphy. Here are the basics:
Murphy is in charge of Right to Rise, a super PAC created to get Bush elected. Because of regulations requiring a separation between candidates and super PACs, they can’t formally coordinate their efforts between now and the election. All the major candidates in the 2016 race will have super PACs working on their behalf, but Bush and Murphy are trying something unprecedented in U.S. presidential elections: building a separate, and better-funded, organization that will in some ways eclipse the official campaign as a vehicle for promoting the candidate. Murphy’s Los Angeles-based team will produce digital marketing, television ads, and opposition research on behalf of Bush, whose campaign headquarters are across the country in Miami. “He’s a good friend, and I’m going to miss him,” Bush says. “I hope to see him on election night and give him an embrace. But from here on out, I won’t be talking to him.”
At first blush, it kind of looks like Bender is succumbing to the same naiveté. But take a closer look at the URL of his article (emphasis mine):
Ha! Nicely played, sir. Sadly, the answer is probably "yes." But hopefully not for much longer.
We've been over this before. Back in April, the Associated Press ran a story about how the Bush campaign was going to enact a substantial "makeover" of the traditional campaign process. In that piece, the AP made it clear that not only was the Bush campaign going to send Murphy, its most trusted aide-de-camp, to run Right to Rise -- it was going to entrust the super PAC with the responsibility of doing the lion's share of the campaign work, and spending the vast majority of the campaign's money.
As I said then: "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." And yes, I'm 100 percent comfortable with the way I used the word "literally" there.
The official Eat The Press position has been, and shall remain, that no "firewall" between campaigns and super PACs truly exists. Wherever this notion is asserted, remember that it assumes facts that are not in evidence. Indeed, I've yet to read any account that tries to explain how this alleged "firewall" would even work. So this idea that Bush and Murphy are going to spend the next year and a half never talking to one another is a pretty fiction, but -- until proven otherwise -- it must be treated as a fiction nonetheless. And from the point of view of the people who are making large donations to Right to Rise, it had damn well better be a fiction, because no one is exactly investing pocket change in this effort to elect Jeb.
There are two aspects of the modern American campaign system that we'd all do well to keep in mind. First, it unleashes the full force of our political plutocracy, allowing donors to give more money to campaigns while shielding them from public scrutiny and criticism. The hidden nature of these arrangements makes possible the second feature of this system -- the one where the "super PAC" arm of the campaign has the freedom to be the candidate's seamy underbelly, producing all manner of dirty, controversial materiel on the candidate's behalf. For a terrific example of how this stuff works, see "Mitt Romney killed my wife," an ad produced during the 2012 campaign cycle by Priorities USA Action, an Obama-affiliated super PAC run by Bill Burton, who is one of Obama's closest confidants.
Right now, this fig-leaf notion that campaigns and super PACs cannot (and thus do not) coordinate with each other is all that remains as a notional bulwark between this super-corrupt campaign system and our vague concept of "fairness." Every time this notion is articulated in the press, it offers a talismanic promise that our campaign finance system is not, as John McCain might tell you, hell with the lid off. This is not just a harmless delusion, however. The idea that a firm barrier exists between campaigns and super PACs actually serves to enable the worst practices in the system.
So every time a super PAC steps beyond the bounds of tact and taste, the candidate with whom it is affiliated can always make a claim of plausible deniability. "That wasn't us!" they'll say. "We would never have countenanced that thing the super PAC did. Alas, we had no way of stopping it, as we cannot coordinate with them." It was by these means that the Obama campaign -- the official one, that is -- never got stained by the aforementioned Priorities USA ad.
Of course, by now, we've all learned that campaigns do coordinate with super PACs -- sometimes in ways that are cutesy and arcane. There's the old "stockpile high-definition B-roll footage and offer it publicly" plan, favored by several candidates in the 2014 cycle. There are the secret Twitter "numbers stations" that CNN's Chris Moody ferreted out a few weeks after the polls closed in 2014. And Salon's Jim Newell recently documented how Carly Fiorina's super PAC was attempting to use campaign journalists as its go-betweens. Points for creativity!
These wacky little shenanigans more or less operate with the unstated assumption that if the people running the campaign and the people running the super PAC ever directly spoke to each other, terrible consequences would be sure to follow. The thing is, though: Would terrible consequences follow? By whose infinite wisdom are we protected from "coordination?" There are myriad ways that a candidate and their super PAC macher can communicate with one another. Burner phones. Dead drops. The only thing, frankly, that might prevent them from just emailing one another is the possibility that some hacker might to do them what Guccifer did to Hillary Clinton's personal email server: breach it and turn its contents over to the public.
For all we've heard about this "firewall" between candidates and super PACs, we really have no idea how robustly this barrier is enforced, and by what means. At this point, for all we know, it's just an empty promise. At best, it means it will be some time before we're able to photograph Jeb Bush and Mike Murphy in the same room together. (Though how will they manage that without coordinating with each other?)
Jeb Bush's team may be getting all the credit for inventing this new style of campaigning, in which the candidate's super PAC gets the bulk of the campaign's intellectual and financial capital and performs most of the traditional duties of the campaign in return, but this, I suspect, is going to be the way presidential politics get done in 2016. As one anonymous GOP strategist told the Associated Press back in April, "This is the natural progression of the rules as they are set out by the FEC."
In other words, just as "Jurassic World's" Indominus rex probed the pen that served as a barrier guarding the world from its bloody rampage, the strength of the FEC's "firewall" has been tested and its weaknesses identified. Aside from perhaps Bernie Sanders -- whose campaign will test the theory that a candidate can bring a knife to this particular gun fight and win -- this is how all of your 2016 campaigns are going to be run. (And for what it's worth, even Sanders is finding out that even when you don't want the dark money, the dark money is going to find you anyway.)
In his Bloomberg piece, Bender cannily leads the reader away from the false promise of the "firewall":
In the midterms, candidates and super PACs devised numerous tactics for telegraphing their strategies. One was tipping off mainstream news organizations to ad buys or strategic shifts. American Crossroads, a major Republican super PAC, and other groups used Twitter to share polling data with party committees, posting tweets filled with cryptic strings of data -- in one case from an account named for a West Wing character. Aides to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tweeted a link to ad scripts devised by New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s campaign that were used by Senate Majority PAC, the largest outside Democratic group. “If Bush’s chief strategist is doing conference calls to lay out exactly what the plan is and how that’s part of the campaign, then there is no independence,” says Bill Burton, a co-founder of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC created in 2012 to support President Obama’s reelection that’s now working for Hillary Clinton. (Burton is no longer involved.) “That’s not to suggest Mike Murphy and the Bush campaign or anyone is breaking the laws. It’s just that the law is really stupid.”
Ha, well, as previously noted, Bill Burton would know about this stuff better than anyone!
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