There was a gospel choir, a marching band, a campaign bus, and signs that said "Rock me like a Herman Cain." At the College of Charleston yesterday, on the eve of the South Carolina GOP primary, Stephen Colbert and Herman Cain joined forces, hosting a rally to highlight the ability of Super PACs to raise unlimited funds to influence elections, and to encourage students to stay involved in the political process.
It seemed silly -- a parody of a parody, given Colbert's on-air persona -- but in fact it was no more absurd than a campaign finance system that now imposes limits on spending and giving in name only. Colbert is a comic not a legislator, but he's at the cutting edge of what's likely to become growing unease with the almost complete vaporization of all spending and contribution limits. The 2012 campaign is likely to see the most unregulated flow of money at least since 1972, the election that gave the nation both Watergate and the campaign finance reforms intended to prevent a similar scandal. Now with those reforms in tatters after a series of legal reversals, capped by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision exactly two years ago, it may be only a matter of time until another money and politics scandal rocks the electoral world, which wouldn't be a laughing matter for anyone.
For now, Colbert was playing it for laughs, as he regularly does on his show, The Colbert Report, although the jokes carried a much sharper edge.
"Now some of you may be too young to remember, but years ago -- back in 2010 -- there were still limits on how much money corporations could spend on elections," he said. "Two years ago, five courageous unelected justices on the Supreme Court took a stand, while technically still sitting. The case was Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission and in it they ruled since corporations are people and people have the right to free speech and money equals speech, therefore corporations have the Constitutional right to spend unlimited money in political speech. With the stroke of a gavel, these brave men leveled the playing field and then sold the naming rights to that playing field to Bank of America."
The crowd, largely consisting of college students, cheered as they recorded the event on their iPhones and hung out of windows and even sat in trees to get a better view of the late-night comedian.
"But these wise men knew that there had to be some reasonable restrictions to protect all that innocent money from the corrupting influence of politicians," said Colbert. "And so they declared that the unlimited corporate and union and billionaire bucks had to be completely independent of the campaigns and lo, Super PACs were born unto us."
Colbert, who has also been using his show to highlight the absurdities of the U.S. campaign finance system, urged the students to vote for businessman Herman Cain, a former GOP presidential candidate who dropped out of the race after allegations of sexual harassment. Doing so, he said, would demonstrate that people want Colbert's name on the ballot to be 'President of the United States of South Carolina.'
As Cain pointed out, "Mr. Colbert could not get on the ballot. I could not get off the ballot. That's how this came about." South Carolina does not allow for write-in candidates, so Colbert has been asking people to vote for Cain instead of him.
Cain gave the students different advice, however, saying, "Now Stephen Colbert asks you to vote for Herman Cain. I'm going to ask you not to vote for Herman Cain. I don't want you to waste your vote... Because every vote counts and you count, which has been my message."
Cain said he was not offended by Colbert attaching his name to Cain's image. "America needs to lighten up," he said. "This helps bring attention to the crisis of the situation we are in." He added, "Even though I'm no longer seeking the office of the president, I'm still on a mission to take back our country from Washington and I'm asking for your help."
Cain offered some advice to the assembled crowd. He encouraged students to stay informed about what's going on in politics and to do their own research. "Because stupid people are ruining America," he said.
He also advised them to "stay involved and don't be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution. Do what you can do to stay involved. And stay inspired." Cain then proceeded to sing to the crowd.
Colbert, who started his own PAC and even produced political ads to satirize the campaign finance system said, "The pundits have asked is this all some joke? And I say if... being allowed to form a Super PAC and collecting unlimited and untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions and corporations and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment... If that is a joke then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke. And I don't know about you," he said, "but I have been paid to be offended by that. We fought a great civil war to ensure that all people are people. As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, 'Give me some money.'"
"There are cynics who say that you have to be a billionaire to have your voice heard in Washington," said Colbert. "Wrong. You just have to know a billionaire."
Colbert's real goal wasn't to affect the South Carolina primary, but to use it as a backdrop to force more attention onto the breakdown of the campaign finance system. One tongue-in-cheek rally won't do that. But Colbert has identified a cause that is likely to stir an increasing degree of debate long after the final votes are counted here this evening.