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Bob Edgar Headshot

The Buying of the President 2012

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The election is still more than nine months away, but it's already clear that in the race for the White House, "we the people" are running far behind "we the one percent."

Financial reports filed and released late Tuesday by the Federal Election Commission indicate that America's next president will take office deeply in debt to a relative handful of wealthy Americans and special interest groups, who will want something in return for their generous support. "Super PACs" that ostensibly are independent but operate as front groups for the candidates are providing a conduit for this handful of big donors to bid on our government.

The numbers are staggering. Restore Our Future, the oddly-named Super PAC aligned with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, raised more than $30 million last year, 98 percent of it in donations of $25,000 or more. Just five donors to Winning Our Future, the SuperPAC working for Newt Gingrich, chipped in a total of $2 million. And Priorities USA Action, working on behalf of President Obama, got just over $4 million from a total of 12 donors, including $2 million from movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and $1 million from the Service Employees International Union.

This is the leading edge of a financial tsunami unprecedented in American politics. The cutoff date for the FEC reports was Dec. 31, so they don't include the $10 million funneled to the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future during January by Las Vegas casino executive Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, or the millions more that went into Restore Our Future's all-out assault on Gingrich in this week's Florida primary.

Also missing from the FEC figures is the $33 million collected so far by Crossroads GPS, a non-profit founded by Republican political guru Karl Rove that is saving most of its money for use against Obama in the fall. And we know nothing about the corporate money flowing into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in 2010 dropped nearly $33 million just on Congressional races.

Groups like the Chamber and Crossroads GPS, which do not have to disclose their donors, are expected to garner hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations and trade associations, along with wealthy donors who prefer to remain anonymous.

All these groups are supposed to operate independent of the candidates of course. The Supreme Court said in Citizens United that we needn't fear their unlimited fundraising and spending because elected officials can't be corrupted by donors with whom they're unconnected.

But does anyone think that having made six- and seven-figure investments in his success, these anonymous donors will remain secret to the president their money helped elect? Can anyone seriously believe that a president can be truly independent of people who've spent tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars to promote him or tear down his adversaries? We've had some admirable, even heroic presidents, but none with that kind of super-power.