Obama and Super PACs in the 2012 Election

The announcement from President Obama’s reelection committee that the president would no longer discourage supporters from contributing to independent spending only political action committees (super PACs) is a reversal of his position in this election cycle and conflicts with the practice he followed with respect to independent spending in the 2008 campaign. His willingness to live with and even encourage super PACs working on his behalf and that of his party also contrasts starkly with the strong stand he has taken against Citizens United and the explosion of activities by these new campaign entities to raise super-sized contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations and to flout the legal requirements of disclosure of donors and non-coordination with candidates and their campaigns.

What is one to make of Obama’s decision? Some argue he has squandered the moral high ground, weakened his ability to contrast his positions on inequality and special interest influence with those of his Republican opponent, and discouraged those among his supporters who put a high premium on changing the unseemly and corrupting role of money in politics. Others on the political right have plenty of room to attack him for hypocrisy, political expediency, old-style cynical politics.

My own view is that his change in posture toward the role of super PACs on his side of the aisle, while truly regrettable, was inevitable given the lack of any progress on the underlying problems. The acknowledged costs of making this shift are outweighed by the benefits of covering the risk of being blown away (along with Democrats in Congress) by truly massive “independent” spending campaigns financed by conservative billionaires and aggrieved financial services executives. The ugly arms race on campaign finance is unlikely to be ended through unilateral disarmament, especially if it puts in power politicians committed to a complete deregulation of money in politics.

Changing course on campaign finance law and practice will require new justices on the Supreme Court, strong appointments to the FEC, increased support for reform in Congress, and a president willing to advocate for and sign remedial legislation. First things first.