PACs Americana: “Which Side Are You On?”
In retrospect, the transformation began the way most major changes in society begin: without anyone fully realizing what was taking place. Yes, when the Supreme Court handed down its 2010 Citizens United decision — allowing virtually unlimited spending by corporations and individuals to sway elections — there was a fair amount of outrage, mostly from the left. President Barack Obama, then in his first term, spoke out against what he called the corporate takeover of our democracy. But even those who imagined the threat posed by this unfettered influence could not have conceived of what would happen in the years that followed.
It started slowly. The so-called “super PACs” inserted themselves in congressional races. They ran a number of deeply misleading ads across the country. And they even took on roles traditionally associated with the political parties and candidates. But in those early days, the influence of these groups was limited: First, there were a lot of super PACs competing with campaigns and each other for donations and political talent. Second, they were prevented by law from coordinating with candidates.
But that all changed after the election in 2012.
Barack Obama’s narrow victory came after a brutal campaign in which the parties spent some $2 billion, yet were almost matched dollar for dollar by outside groups. The airwaves in swing states were saturated with a level of political vitriol not seen in this country since the days before the Civil War. The lack of coordination between PACs and candidates, however, meant that while people were inundated with ads, the messages were often competing and disjointed, forgotten as soon as the commercial break was over. Voters were angry, confused, frightened, and unmoved.
After the president’s reelection, a group of senior Republican operatives, joined by energy executives, Christian conservatives, and wealthy Republican donors, gathered to commiserate over the outcome of the race, and to plot the way forward. But the meeting quickly devolved into chaos. Karl Rove and representatives of Crossroads GPS, his super PAC, nearly came to blows with Mitt Romney’s campaign team — both sides slinging accusations as to who allowed the election to slip through their fingers.
Then a junior staffer, there only to take notes, stood up.
“This is the problem,” he said quietly.
Karl Rove, holding a folding chair over the prone and weeping form of Eric Fehrnstrom, paused. “What is it, son? Speak up.”
“This,” he said, taking a deep breath. “This is the first time any of us have been in the same room together.”
Grover Norquist, who took shelter behind a potted plant at the first sign of trouble, stood up and cleared his throat. “But we were barred by law, kid. Sure, the leaders of PACs can talk, but what use is it if we can’t coordinate with the campaigns?”
Karl unfolded the chair and sat down, his mind turning. “What if…” Karl squinted, shined an apple on his shirt, and took a bite. “What if there are no campaigns to coordinate with?”
Soon after, Crossroads GPS merged with the remnants of the pro-Romney “Restore our Future” super PAC, and absorbed other smaller organizations as well. With unlimited resources and few disclosure requirements, this new entity, TruePAC, had the funds to hire away talented staffers and operatives from the national party and campaigns. TruePAC enlisted polling firms, direct mail distributors, and other mainstays of traditional political operations. And Rove traveled the country delivering what became known as the PACs Americana Speech to convince bundlers and major donors to eschew traditional campaigns and parties to support his new organization.
His answer to a ban on coordination was to make coordination irrelevant. The PAC would be the campaign. The campaign would be the PAC. Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, campaigns really only existed to meet filing deadlines and conduct paperwork; beyond this, the real difference between an official campaign and a political action committee was a bunch of onerous rules and restrictions.
And who needed those?
Democrats, slow to see the power of this new model, were overwhelmed by the onslaught that followed. Republicans took the White House and Congress in an election defined by TruePAC’s famous slogan, “ARGHHHHHHH,” which was shouted by children being pushed into a volcano. It was then that the last vestiges of the labor movement, Hollywood moguls like the chairman of NBC Hulu Universal, prominent trial lawyers, and wealthy liberal activists decided it was time to fight fire with fire. They created what became known as GoodPAC, which soon leveled the playing field.
In the coming years, GoodPAC and TruePAC waged a cold war, with candidates as their proxies, and advertisements as their arsenal. Campaigns became mere shells, with a skeleton staff on hand to secure signatures to gain ballot access and to file the requisite financial disclosures, which no one cared about anymore, because they were pretty much blank. Eventually, candidates stopped campaigning all together, fearing that any appearance would give TruePAC or GoodPAC more recent footage that could be used in their horrible, blood-curdling advertisements.
These tactics were of little use, however, as both PACs hired artists to ‘render’ versions of the other side in various animal and arachnid forms. Soon, people forgot which parties they originally favored, and came to identify with GoodPAC or TruePAC alone. After a while, the elections almost blended together. It was easy to think that GoodPAC had always been at war with TruePAC.
In time, supporters of GoodPAC and TruePAC grew more and more polarized, often refusing to live in the same parts of town. Campaigns were loud and garish affairs with long marches and slogans shouted in support of candidates rarely ever met or seen. The saddest part is, the elections themselves were usually decided by just a few votes, with the ballot counting extending for months or longer. Sometimes, you never even hear about who wins.
What’s strange is, I could swear that there have been times when the PACs have switched views to what the other PAC held in the last election. And there even are rumors that some companies support both PACs. It’s hard to know, because there are no disclosures. But I don’t understand how anyone could support both GoodPAC and TruePAC when they have such wildly different principles. Honestly, I’m not even sure if the members of TruePAC are people at all. They seem so awful, and lack the values that made this country strong. Are they rats? I think they may be giant rats.
At this point, I only know two things:
One, we have to do something — anything — to wrestle control of our government away from these powerful interests that distort our debate and limit our choices; that would scare us and divide us and deny us a voice in our political process, in our democracy.
And two, I hate with every fiber of my being the candidates backed by TruePAC, and I will do all that is in my power to help elect the decent, honest people who have earned the support of GoodPAC. So will you help us defeat the dragon-faced rat monsters who are out to destroy this country?
Which side are you on?
By: Jon Lovett, The Atlantic, February 2, 2012
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