Barack Obama's Super PAC Conundrum

President Barack Obama's decision to give his "reluctant blessing" to a super PAC supporting him, Priorities USA Action, has created something of a low-grade mess for his campaign team, which has had to spend the past few days fending off charges of hypocrisy from the press. This is understandable! President Obama, after all, famously defamed the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that has allowed these secretive organizations to flower and flourish. And the president has taken his share of shots from those on his side of the aisle as well: Russ Feingold characterized Obama's embrace of the super PAC system as "dancing with the devil."

Of course, the argument in favor of getting into bed with super PACs is equally compelling and typically involves the phrase "unilateral disarmament." Bill Burton, who runs Priorities USA Action, made the argument on MSNBC this morning, saying, "This is not a perfect system, and these are not the rules that we would have if we were able to just make them from whole cloth right now, but it's the rules that we have, and we are going into an election where Karl Rove and the Koch brothers and others have pledged millions of dollars against Obama ... we do not like the rules but we have to have a force against what they are doing."

In other words, Team Obama Re-Elect can fight according to the established rules of the game -- including those they do not care for -- and thus avoid going into a knife fight armed with a plastic spork, or they can stand on principle, get obliterated in the general, and everyone can spend the rest of their lives as private citizens, lamenting the corrupt campaign finance system with Buddy Roemer. As a tactical decision, it's the right one. It's the one I'd make, if I were in charge of tactical decisions.

But I'm not. It's my job to fret about the corrupt campaign finance system. Now, in terms of how this issue might impact anyone's electoral hopes, it's safe to say that at the moment, this is not going to be a matter that voters consider too deeply. With a fragile economy and high unemployment, I doubt it really even rates. But that could change. Sen. John McCain predicts that at some point, there's going to be some massive scandal that arises from all the money that's sloshing around. If something like that happens to Mitt Romney, it could end up costing him. But if it happens to Obama, it costs him double, because he's the guy in the race who took a principled stand against super PACs in the first place, and who is continuing to profess those principles, even as he fudges them.

My feeling is that if Obama is not going to unilaterally disarm, that's fine. But he's going to have to take some steps that might nevertheless place him at a disadvantage.

First, he will have to insist that his super PAC do the one thing it is legally entitled to abstain from, and offer absolute and total transparency. Priorities USA is going to have to disclose the sources of their funding -- the individual donors, the bundlers, right down to how the administrative costs of running the super PAC are funded. No part of this operation can be permitted to operate in darkness. What that means is that not only will the Obama campaign have to endure process stories about who is financing their effort, they'll also have to endure process stories about who is refraining from offering assistance. And shady money? That will have to be returned, no excuses.

Second, Obama is never going to be allowed to do what Mitt Romney has done during the primary season -- pass the buck. The main reason to have a super PAC in the first place is to have a campaign entity that can do all the dirty work -- the deceptions, the brutal attack ads, the low blows -- while giving the candidate something that looks like "plausible deniability." But Obama can't be the guy standing onstage at the debate, pretending to have no idea how it came to pass that his super PAC put out a controversial ad, and gosh golly if he had his way he'd put a stop to it ... but, you know ... that would be considered "coordination," so his hands are tied, shucks. If Obama is going to maintain some semblance of a principled stance, it's a luxury he can't claim for himself. In this way, someone like Mitt Romney is going to have a natural advantage over Obama, but what can you do? Romney never took a principled stand against super PACs!

Finally, Obama is going to have to find a way to convince voters that he's hot to reform the system he's using to win the election. Or at the very least, it's something that he should articulate, since many of his defenders are putting their principles on the line by making the argument that the only way to fight the system is to use the system, as Jonathan Chait argues:

Indeed, if you want to change the system, unilateral disarmament seems like a pretty bad way to go about it. Republicans are already pretty strongly opposed to campaign-finance reform. If keeping the current system means preserving a system in which their side gets unlimited outside spending and Democrats abstain, then the GOP is never going to agree to change it. Not that matching their money will force them to agree to reform, but eliminating the GOP's partisan self-interest in the status quo seems like, at minimum, a necessary step toward reform.

On a conference call with the Obama campaign yesterday, Greg Sargent and David Dayen attempted to get the president's aides to discuss how they might go about instituting reforms after the fact, should they win a second term. It doesn't sound to me like there's a lot of fervor for it:

"Should a constitutional amendment be necessary to reverse the worst aspets of the Citizens United law, he would support those efforts," the official said. "But ultimately as we look at what's possible this year, we recognize the reality of what the Republican Congress will and won't support."

"That doesn't mean his commitment to reform isn't there. But we're recognizing the reality of the political situation. We're going to need to elect a Democratic majority in Congress."

And there's the rub! Should the Democrats, with Obama as their standard-bearer, manage the feat of electing a Democratic Congressional majority in 2012, how inclined do you think the lawmakers who make up that majority will be to dismantle the mechanism they all used to win or retain their seats? I'd say it's not bloody likely that they would. And that's why, no matter how hard Obama and his super PAC try to walk with the angels, it's still a dance with the devil.

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