President Obama's reelection campaign yesterday announced a “Truth Team” to keep his Republican critics honest.
It may want to start with its own candidate.
In the type of flip-flop in for which they would delight in criticizing Republican Mitt Romney, the Democrats and their reelection apparatus last week completed a turnaround on their staunch opposition to campaign funding by so-called “super PACs.”
It echoed another campaign finance backtrack from four years ago.
During the 2008 race, then-Senator Barack Obama signed a questionnaire saying he would commit to public financing of his general election campaign if his opponent did the same.
He added a caveat, though, that ended up being a loophole: “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”
A promised meeting with his GOP opponent, John McCain, never materialized after staff discussions failed to reach a deal on limiting spending by the Democratic and Republican National committees and their respective allies.
Ultimately, Obama became the first candidate in the post-Watergate era to self-finance his campaign. McCain stayed within the system, and Obama went on to dwarf his total fund-raising, $745 million to $368 million.
Two years later, the then-president decried a Supreme Court ruling that deemed political advertising by corporations to be protected free speech.
That decision, coupled with other regulatory rulings, propelled advertising from super PACS, which can raise unlimited money from individuals, corporations, and labor unions and spend it on a race so long as they do not directly coordinate with a candidate.
For those reasons, the president once branded them a “threat to democracy.”
He also famously upbraided the Supreme Court, while justices sat on the House floor to hear his 2010 annual State of the Union speech, for their “Citizens United” ruling.
Obama complained that the decision overturned the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems,” the president said at the time.
Television cameras showed Justice Samuel Alito mouthing “not true” and exasperated by what he apparently believed was an unwarranted breach of the separation of powers.
Furthermore, Obama called super PACs “shadowy groups” as they worked against Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, then stood by in the spring of 2011 as two former top aides - including former deputy press secretary Bill Burton - left the White House to launch their own pro-administration super PAC.
Last week, Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, announced the committee wouldn’t just tolerate Burton’s group, Priorities USA Action, but also let top officials and administration Cabinet members appear at events were it is seeking contributions.
He cited a severe fund-raising gap against the super PAC supporting Romney, whom the White House believes will be its general election opponent.
Seeking to project an air of dignity, Messina said that Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and first lady Michelle Obama would not personally participate. He also said the officials who would participate would not directly seek donations, a distinction deemed “laughable” by the Washington-based government watchdog Common Cause.
“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,” Messina wrote.
In other words, political necessity has overtaken personal principle.
While the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore our Future, outraised Priorities Action $30 million to $4 million last year, Obama himself raised far more than Romney during same span: $125 million to $56 million.
While super PACs don’t face the same donor limits as a presidential campaign committee (which are $2,500 apiece for the general election), Obama has the power of the presidential bully pulpit and the unique backdrop of Air Force One to counteract their influence.
That said, if Obama is forced to rely on his own committee rather than a super PAC during the general election, he would have to pay for his own negative ads - and lose any distance to disclaim them.
There would be no way to shade the truth.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.