And "independent" has been defined so loosely by the Federal Election Commission that today we see candidates' former staff members running super PACs backing them; GOP candidates appearing at super PAC fundraisers; and Obama cabinet aides indicating they may attend super PAC events.
The fact is, money may be the worst of all political evils, but attempts to restrict money from campaigns have almost always been circumvented. Given the costs of campaigns in this era, particularly the cost of television, there is virtually no way to stop large pools of money from somehow supporting a particular candidate. Big money, put to honest use, may be benign, depending on your point of view. In 1968, for instance, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was expected to run again, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was the most outspoken and articulate opponent of the Vietnam War—Johnson's war, he called it. Popular support for the war was declining, but McCarthy lacked the resources for a strong campaign. Wealthy liberals and others made huge contributions and thus created a viable candidate and a voice for the millions of anti-war Americans. McCarthy did well enough in New Hampshire to persuade Johnson that he should not run for re-election. In the 2004 presidential campaign, though, we had the vilification of Sen. John Kerry through the Swift Boat ads.
Republicans see super PACs as counterweights to President Obama's fundraising advantage as an incumbent. In 2008, Obama angered McCain, his Republican opponent, by breaking his pledge to run within public spending limits. Obama broke his word because money will find a way: He'd tapped millions more through the Internet. This year and last he has chased money relentlessly, raising about $300 million for his campaign and the national party, on his way to a billion. And the presidential election is just the beginning, for supers will also focus on key House and Senate races, which are even more susceptible to being tilted by money. They will join other special interest groups like labor, women's associations, business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, which have been spending millions.
It is hard to believe that the candidates will have no control over the literally hundreds of millions of dollars that are being, or will be, spent on their behalf—advocating positions they don't support, or sliming an opponent. But that is what we can expect. Some party insiders regard supers as unhelpful because they turn campaigns into "circular firing squads," in which the one with the most money dies last. The supers may not be telling people to vote for a candidate, but they certainly are telling the public why they should vote against his opponent. As analyst Bill Schneider has noted, the candidates' fingerprints may be missing, but in effect their campaigns are outsourcing negative ads. The supers can theoretically make any arguments they wish; many of the ads we've seen are dirtier than anything a candidate would want to see attached to his or her name. One pro-Santorum super accused Romney of being "just like Obama." A Romney super attacked Newt Gingrich by suggesting he has "more baggage than the airlines." It all falls under the court's belief that money is a proxy for information in politics and one voter's attack ad is another voter's piece of information.
We may not be able to end the role of money in American politics, but there are two things we should do, at least. No-limit donations aren't ideal, but let's organize the process so that money can be channeled back into the parties, and thus reinforce accountability. Secondly, disclosure. The public is entitled to know who is giving the money, how much, and how it was spent. Donors would at least be working within a campaign and not around it.