Campaign financing has become such a farce that it takes two comedians to explain it best. For months, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert has been telling viewers how super PACs, the evil progeny of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, work.
Campaign financing has become such a farce that it takes two comedians to explain it best.
For months, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert has been telling viewers how super PACs, the evil progeny of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, work.
Colbert founded his own super PAC, inviting unlimited contributions –– donors were listed as “heroes” in a crawl across the bottom of the screen –– that would be used to promote or castigate whatever candidates Colbert favored, which, as with Republican voters, seemed to change daily.
All of it was perfectly legal, Colbert’s lawyer explained. A super PAC can raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote a candidate or disparage his opponents. That’s exactly what the super PACs run by people not nearly as funny as Colbert were doing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney’s super PAC, “Restore Our Future,” blasted Newt Gingrich from first place to fourth in Iowa with a barrage of negative ads. “Winning Our Future,” the super PAC run by a former Gingrich aide, responded with ads attacking Romney, including a 27-minute video painting Romney as the Jobs Destroyer from the land of Bain.
Last week, Colbert turned it up a notch. The South Carolina native announced he was forming an “exploratory committee” to consider whether he should run for “the presidency of South Carolina. But could the unspent fortune in the Colbert super PAC — “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” — be used to promote candidate Colbert?
Colbert’s legal adviser returned to the show to explain that the super PAC could continue raising unlimited cash and spending it any way it wanted, including promoting Colbert’s candidacy. The only hitch was that the candidate’s campaign was prohibited from coordinating in any way with the super PAC.
So Colbert brought in Jon Stewart, whose own fake news show precedes Colbert’s on Comedy Central, and officially transferred control of the super PAC to him. The super PAC staff would be the same, working alongside Colbert’s (theoretical) campaign staff, as long as they didn’t coordinate.
Coordination, Colbert’s lawyer explained, means that Colbert can’t share his plans with Stewart. “From now on,” Colbert told Stewart, “I’ll just have to talk about my plans on my television show and take the risk that you might watch it.”
The very next day, real politics imitated satire.
Gingrich had been blasting Romney’s super PAC since its negative ads knocked him of his horse in Iowa, complaining of “a bunch of millionaires getting together to run a negative campaign, and Gov. Romney refusing to call them off and refusing to be honest about it.”
Romney’s response had sounded like a Comedy Central routine. I can’t stop the ads or coordinate in any way with the super PAC, he said, or “I’d be in the big house.”
But when the anti-Romney, anti-Bain video produced by the pro-Gingrich super PAC came under fire for inaccuracies, Gingrich decided to coordinate the Colbert way: He went on TV to give orders to his super PAC.
“I’m calling on them to either edit out every single mistake or to pull the entire film,” Gingrich told TV cameras at a campaign stop, in comments the keepers of the super PAC couldn’t avoid hearing. The head of the super PAC, Gingrich’s former spokesman, said they wouldn’t yank or edit the film, a refusal that may have been dictated by the legal corner Newt had painted him into: If he had obeyed Gingrich’s public command, it would have been evidence of illegal coordination.
Colbert continues to milk this shtick for laughs and ratings. He — or his super PAC, it’s getting hard to tell — put together somehilarious ads for the show and to broadcast in primary states. One accuses Romney of being a serial killer. Another attacks Colbert, as a means to prove there’s no illegal coordination going on. Since he can’t get his name on the ballot in South Carolina, Colbert told voters to show their support by casting a vote for Herman Cain, who has now dropped out of the race. To underline that message, Cain was appearing Friday with Colbert at a Charleston, S.C., campaign rally.
The Republican primary campaign had more than enough laughs before the Comedy Central guys showed up: Rick Perry slipping on verbal banana peels in debates, multiple women telling tales on Cain, Michelle Bachman’s eyes, Romney’s offer of a $10,000 bet. Just this week, we had Romney on the defense about his wealth and his tax returns, Gingrich fighting off attacks by ex-wife No. 2, and the confession by the Iowa Republican Party that Rick Santorum won the caucuses three weeks ago, not Romney.
The super PAC business is as absurd as Colbert paints it, but it is also dangerous. Consider Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who, thanks to Citizens United, was able to bankroll the Gingrich super PAC’s South Carolina assault on Romney. Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, has political and business interests in Israel and China. He has been accused of using his campaign-donor clout to, among other things, pressure House GOP leaders to kill a resolution his partners in China didn’t like.
While we’re laughing at the super PACs, we ought to at least be asking what Adelson expects to get in return for the $5 million he gave to keep the Gingrich campaign alive. And what of the other millionaires and billionaires, some of whose identities may never be known thanks to another loophole in campaign finance laws, picking up the tab for this flood of campaign advertising? What will they expect in return once their candidates are elected and the veil of non-coordination is lifted?
You might say South Carolinians are warming to Colbert’s message. At this writing, I have no idea how Herman Cain placed in the primary, but a poll this week had Colbert garnering 8 percent of the vote. More likely, that’s a sign that voters in the Palmetto State have a sense of humor.
This year, that’s pretty much required.
Rick Holmes can be reached at email@example.com.