WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) ripped into both President Barack Obama and his re-election team on Tuesday morning for backing off its previous criticism of outside spending on campaigns and embracing the role that super PACs will play in the 2012 election.
"It is a dumb approach," Feingold said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "It will lead to scandal and there are going to be a lot of people having corrupt conversations about huge amounts of money that will one day regret that they went down the route of what is effectively a legalized Abramoff system."
"I also think it guts the president's message and the Democratic Party's message," Feingold added. "We are doing very well right now. The president is doing brilliantly. This is no time to blunt that message by starting to play this game. I think people will see it as phony that Democrats start playing by Republican rules. People will see us as weak and not being a true alternative and just being the same as the other guy. And as I have said before, to me this is dancing with the devil."
One of the few remaining vocal champions of strict campaign finance rules, Feingold's harsh words for Obama were hardly unanticipated. The former senator offered a similar denunciation when former aides to the president first set out to form a super PAC, setting up the group that stands to benefit most from the campaign's new policy: Priorities USA Action.
One of the founders of that group told The Huffington Post on Monday night that the campaign's new approach to super PACS -- it will continue to publicly disapprove of their existence but will encourage donors to help fund them -- was simply a recognition of modern political realities.
"As has become evident in the past month, the only enthusiasm in the Republican Party is among oil company billionaires and investment bankers on Wall Street looking to defeat President Obama," said Bill Burton. "We’re committed to providing a balance to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers who have pledged more than half a billion dollars to their effort."
Aides to the president's re-election campaign, meanwhile, have pointed to the sucess that Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential bid, has had in discrediting Romney's primary opponents. They argue that to simply accept the same fate would constitute campaign suicide.
"I'm sure super PACS have had some role [in damaging former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's candidacy]," Feingold said of the latter point. "But the fact is that Romney's best advantage is he has terrible opponents. It's true. If these people were even remotely credible I don’t think all the money in the world would help. It's that he has complete duds as opponents who people know can't beat the president."
The Obama campaign is set to hold a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning in an effort to further explain its reversal on super PACs. In all likelihood, it will be a variation of the argument campaign manager Jim Messina put forward in a blog post Monday night.
"With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm," he wrote.
Feingold, as expected, was not persuaded by that argument.
"The president is wrong to have embraced the corrupt corporate politics of Citizens United and that's what you're doing when you start using and consorting with super PACs. They can raise unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals and corporations and often they can do it in total secrecy," he said. "I am a supporter of the president. I will continue to support the president. But on this one I couldn't disagree more."
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