“[President Obama is] telling the country that simply getting re-elected is bigger than standing on principle.”
The above is the concluding sentence of a New York Times editorial criticizing Mr. Obama for deciding to take super-PAC money. In an ideal world, of course, there wouldn’t be any of these Supreme Court-created monsters threatening our democracy. But that’s not the world we live in.
Here’s the rest of the editorial:
Two years ago, while delivering his State of the Union address, President Obama looked the Supreme Court justices in the face and told them they were wrong to have allowed special interests to spend without limits on campaigns. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests,” he said. “They should be decided by the American people.”
On Monday, the president abandoned that fundamental principle and gave in to the culture of the Citizens United decision that he once denounced as a “threat to our democracy.”
His aides announced that the Obama campaign would begin to assist the “super PAC” that can raise and spend unlimited sums to support the president’s re-election effort. Even White House and cabinet officials are expected to appear at fund-raising events for Priorities USA Action.
The announcement fully implicates the president, his campaign and his administration in the pollution of the political system unleashed by Citizens United and related court decisions. Corporations, unions and wealthy individuals are already writing huge checks — with no restrictions — to political action committees supporting individual candidates, which have become bag men for campaigns that still nominally operate under federal limits.
As misguided as it was, the Citizens United decision naïvely believed that the super PACs would remain separate from individual campaigns. The White House’s decision to allow insiders like Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, and Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, to speak at Priorities USA Action events shows how ludicrous that notion has become, raising questions about whether the law is being violated.
Up to now, Republicans have been the main defenders of this corrupt system, and the main beneficiaries of it. Two of Karl Rove’s political groups raised $51 million last year to use against Mr. Obama and other Democrats, and the Republican presidential candidates’ PACs have raised $40 million.
Priorities USA Action and other Democratic groups have raised only $19 million. And, as Mr. Messina wrote on the Obama campaign’s blog, “with so much at stake” Democrats decided that they would not “unilaterally disarm.”
But if President Obama had refused to join in this downward spiral — and if he had proudly campaigned on that refusal — he and his campaign might have made up for that deficit in other ways: with more small contributions, and more support, from a public disgusted by the outsize influence of big money.
A president has a megaphone bigger even than Mr. Rove’s bloated bank account, and Mr. Obama could have impressed many wavering voters if he had chosen to use it against campaign corruption. He could have pointed out that it was Republicans who blocked the Disclose Act, which would have ended secret corporate donations, and that it was Republicans who used unlimited corporate funds to win back the House in 2010, pressing a corporate agenda that has severely hurt the middle class.
He could have ridiculed Mitt Romney’s super PAC for accepting $18 million from just 200 donors in the second half of last year, including million-dollar checks from hedge-fund operators, industrialists and bankers.
But now Mr. Obama has given up that higher ground. He had already undermined the public financing system for presidential campaigns by refusing to use it in 2008, but this is much worse. In that campaign, he at least forswore money from independent groups and lobbyists. Now he is relying on a super PAC that can accept money from anyone.