the national interest

Obama’s Super PAC: Using the System to Fight the System

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama defended his economic policies, echoing his recent State of the Union address.
Photo: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

The phrase “unilateral disarmament” has been used, in a negative sense, to justify a lot of unjustifiable behavior. But President Obama’s argument against unilateral disarmament in the super PAC war seems totally persuasive. The Republican party gained a large advantage in the 2010 elections, and appears poised to seize an even more dramatic edge during this campaign, by channeling vast sums of their campaign donations into third-party organizations, which can raise unlimited sums from undisclosed donors.

The problem with Obama’s decision, as I have been reading from numerous reporters, is that it’s “hypocritical.” MSNBC’s First Read insists that blessing super PACs “looks hypocritical no matter how you try and rationalize it.” Making the charge as a matter of appearance rather than substance – it looks hypocritical — allows you to throw out an accusation without justifying it. But how is it hypocritical? I haven’t seen anybody attempt to actually explain it.

To me, the ethics are pretty simple. Obama opposes the current campaign-finance system. His position is that the Citizens United ruling is wrong on the legal merits, it’s bad policy to allow unregulated independent election spending, Congress should pass legislation (previously blocked by Republicans) requiring greater disclosure from such groups, and that he favors a constitutional amendment to allow greater campaign-finance restrictions.

I fail to see what about these positions implies that Obama should also hold the following position: Given that the campaign-finance system is going to allow unlimited election spending by individual donors to technically independent groups, it is better to have a system where Republican donors exert these high levels of political influence but Democratic donors do not. Isn’t it perfectly reasonable to believe that the best outcome is a system where millionaires can’t spend unlimited sums on electioneering, and a system in which both parties have millionaires counterbalancing each other is better than a system in which only one party has millionaires spending unlimited sums?

Obama, after all, isn’t arguing that a millionaire cutting a $10 million check to buy a slew of political ads is an inherently immoral act, like driving a car through a crowd of pedestrians. He’s arguing that it’s a bad system, like allowing Warren Buffett to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. He wants to change the system. But that wouldn’t make it hypocritical for Buffett to operate within the system that exists, as opposed to the alternate system he advocates.

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.

Obama’s Super PAC Fighting the System