Rumors Of A 'Firewall' Between Campaigns And Super PACs Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Supporters of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wait as volunteers from Ready for Hillary hand out posters and bum
Supporters of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wait as volunteers from Ready for Hillary hand out posters and bumper stickers after Clinton spoke about her new book 'Hard Choices' at the George Washington University in Washington on June 13, 2014. Clinton is widely thought to be mulling a run for the 2016 presidential election. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

As America has become used to the new landscape of money in politics -- now featuring rampaging, steroidal super PACs running amok in every corner of the country -- you've probably been told one nice little story that's supposed to make you feel better about what would seem to be a campaign finance system shot through with suppurating vice: Candidates and campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with these super PACs because of some awesome legal "firewall." So some purity remains, right?

Ha, well, no. Let's take the once-nascent, now burgeoning Ready For Hillary super PAC, shall we? Back when Ready For Hillary launched, the only concern to be found was among a bunch of unnamed Beltway chatterers who anonymously raised counterintuitive alarms about the Clinton-backing super PAC getting too big, too soon and creating an "air of inevitability" (which was supposed to be bad ... somehow).

But as Mother Jones' Patrick Caldwell reports today, there is a legitimate concern that's actually worth fretting over regarding a "huge campaign finance loophole" that could end up decimating the fiction of the "firewall."

And as it turns out, the "huge campaign finance loophole" in question is a pretty amazing loophole. Its greatness comes from its obviousness: Sure, super PACs cannot nominally "coordinate" with candidates, but what about people who aren't actually candidates yet, huh? What then?

But the situation is worse—or looser—when a super-PAC is assisting someone who is still making up his or her mind about whether to wage a campaign. "How can you issue judgment on whether super-PACs are coordinating with a candidate, when there's not a candidate?" says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. "There's nothing, to my knowledge, that prevents [the potential candidate and the super-PAC] from getting together and strategizing and sharing understandings and whatnot." A politician who has not yet declared his candidacy could help a super-PAC round up million-dollar donations to help his future campaign and dodge limits that will apply to contributions made after he officially enters the race.

Despite a book tour that is operating as a proto-presidential campaign, Clinton isn't officially running for president, still claiming that she's making up her mind. "She's not a candidate right now," Noble says, "so if they did coordinate with her right now it wouldn't really matter."

Caldwell goes on to note the example of Ryan Zinke, "a GOPer running for Montana's sole US House seat." See, Zinke actually founded his own super PAC (a generic anti-Obama affair), got it up and running, and then abruptly quit. Shortly thereafter, this super PAC seamlessly shifted its focus to supporting his candidacy. Pretty neat trick, actually!

Ready For Hillary has made a public show of going to extremes to avoid looking like they are in close contact with Clinton. From the beginning, its co-founder, Allida Black, has talked about their "kryptonite firewall" and her willingness to stay at arm's length from the former Secretary of State. All of this is reiterated in Caldwell's piece. The super PAC's communications director, Seth Bringman, shows up in Caldwell's piece insisting that "none of Ready for Hillary's paid staff communicate with Clinton's office." Of course, Caldwell goes on to note that Bringman "couldn't offer the same guarantee for the group's outside advisers, who include many Clinton vets with close ties to Hillaryland."

And how could he? After all, as Maggie Haberman reported back in January, advisers in Clinton's orbit had to step in and help sort out the conflicts between Ready For Hillary PAC and the Priorities USA super PAC, which was then "in discussions to reinvent itself as a pro-Hillary Clinton endeavor." The sorting-out resulted in a peaceable redefinition of everyone's roles, but I guess none dare call this "coordination" (because of the tidy loopholes involved).

Still, let's not get caught in all the 2016-specific michegas. As Caldwell notes, there is a larger problem looming here:

A new study by Daniel Tokaji and Renata Strause at Ohio State University examines what happens behind the scenes with campaign staff, super-PACers, and politicians; it notes that there are already numerous ways campaigns and super-PACs collude. "At the end of the day," one anonymous campaign operative told them, "it's all just kind of a fiction—it's just kind of a farce, the whole campaign finance noncoordination thing."

And that's really how everyone should proceed -- by acknowledging that all the talk of "firewalls" and "noncoordination" is just a bunch of hogwash. Between the "lax enforcement" of the rules and the eternal difficulty inherent in trying to prove a negative, there's no reason in the world to believe that intimate coordination isn't happening. As long as no one makes the mistake of leaving evidence of coordination laying around, no one will get caught.

But your baseline assumption should be that coordination is happening on all levels, especially between parties that aren't meant to be coordinating. That's why Eat The Press' official position on the matter has long been and will continue to be that super PACs and candidates coordinate all the time, and that candidates and their campaigns are always responsible for whatever low-road nonsense their allied super PACs generate. I'm at a complete loss as to why all political journalism doesn't hew to these perfectly obvious assumptions, but there you go.

Naturally, I am girding my loins for two years of super PAC machers angrily emailing me for corrections, all of which I shall gently rebuff with a "¯\_(ツ)_/¯".

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2014 Election: $500,000-Plus Super PAC Donors