A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
Super PACs have been called the wild card in this years presidential election. Following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United these groups are allowed to accept unlimited donations and advocate for and against specific candidates. By November 2012 super PACs aligned with Governor Mitt Romney estimate they will have raised about $800 million dollars, about eight times what the pro-Obama super PAC hopes to bring in. Please join us for a conversation on super PACs and their role in the 2012 presidential race.
- Jonathan Collegio Communications director, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS
- Robert Draper Freelance writer, a correspondent for GQ and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine
- Bill Burton A founder and senior strategist for Priorities USA Action and former deputy press secretary at the Obama White House
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The campaign money race is on, and in one particular area, super PACs supporters of Gov. Romney are way ahead. Joining me in the studio to talk about super PACs and their role in the 2012 presidential race: Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Robert Draper, a contributor to The New York Times magazine, and Bill Burton, a founder and senior strategist for Priorities USA Action.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us with your questions, comments. Super PACs have been much in the news of late, so I'm sure you have your own questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter, and good morning to all of you.
MR. JONATHAN COLLEGIOGood morning
MR. ROBERT DRAPERGood morning.
MR. BILL BURTONGood morning.
REHMGood to have you here. Jonathan and Bill, I know you're both working on raising money for super PACs. Starting with you, Jonathan, explain how they work and the work you are doing.
COLLEGIOOK. So American Crossroads is what we call a 527 independent expenditure committee, also known as a super PAC, and what that means is that we're able to raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations and unions. And we can make unlimited expenditures in a political campaign environment, but it has to be not coordinated with a candidate or a kind of committee, a party committee, that would coordinate with a candidate.
REHMAnd how does that really work when you've got people moving in and out of, say, a campaign to a fundraising effort?
COLLEGIOYeah. So you have to set up safeguards. You have to set up firewalls. If you're in any kind of circumstance where you would be in an environment where you would talk to somebody, you set up a firewall. You make sure that there's no type of strategic conversation with anybody on the other side of that.
REHMNow, Bill Burton, tell me how effectively that can work as someone who has been on the inside of the White House.
BURTONWell, you know, some of my closest friends work in the White House and on the Obama campaign. So we have to make a determination right at the beginning that we're going to have to put our friendship on pause and look forward to the end of campaign, so we could get together and talk all about the campaign and how it all went. So what we do is we -- the laws are specific.
BURTONThey say you cannot coordinate on anything that has to do with message or strategy, and that includes polling and research and that sort of thing. And so we follow the letter in the spirit of law, and we just make sure that we're -- everything is working in a very legal way, so that, you know, we can do the work that we're trying to do which is trying to get the president re-elected and not get distracted by anything.
REHMAnd where does the money come that you're trying -- come from that you're trying to raise?
BURTONAll sorts of folks. You know, there's different groups of progressives who are really concerned about the president losing and about Mitt Romney winning. So there's people who are in the entertainment community who are helping out. There's people from Chicago who are helping out, people in New York. There's sort of all different sectors, all different jobs, all different regions.
BURTONThere's a broad base of people who want to make sure that the president's re-elected so that it can continue to grow the economy, and it can protect the things that had been so important to Democrats like -- not just health care and the tax policy but also things like stem cell research, things that don't get as much attention in the day-to-day news coverage but would have -- would be drastically different if Mitt Romney were elected.
REHMAnd how do you account for the fact that the super PACs on the Democratic side have raised so much less money than those on the Republican side?
BURTONI think it's a great question, and there's a couple of reasons. Like Jonathan said in a piece in The New York Times magazine this weekend, you know, it's much easier to be the party out of power raising money for just such a group. And the second reason is that on our side, you know, the people who are giving money to us, like I said, there's a big group of folks from the entertainment community who've been helping us out.
BURTONNow, if the president gets re-elected, it's not like Hollywood's going to sell more movie tickets in the second term of an Obama administration. But on the Republican side, you've got huge folks from Wall Street and from the energy industry who are counting on President Romney to deregulate the energy industry, to deregulate Wall Street. So they make gobs of money. They're making an investment that they hope to get a return on. On the Democratic side, you don't really have that kind of thing.
REHMJonathan, how do you account for the fact that you, on the Republican side, have raised nearly eight times as much as what the Democrats have thus far?
COLLEGIOIt has the combination of two things. First, you have to have a sense, a deep sense of concern about the direction of the country among the donors, we're seeing that. You take the health care bill, for example, 13,000 new pages of regulations. This is not even the beginning of the regulatory boat that's going to fly on this Obamacare things. So there has to be first a concern about the direction of the country.
COLLEGIOBut then, there also has to be a sense of opportunity that you can change the direction of the country, either by stopping the president's agenda in Congress or by electing a new president in 2012.
REHMAnd, Robert Draper, as Bill Burton just said, you wrote a piece for The New York Times over the weekend. Tell me your assessment of how these super PACs are affecting the election process.
DRAPERWell, there's been money on politics for a long time. We've never seen quite this much money in politics, and we've never seen this much money deployed in such a way. What super PACs essentially function as organs to run attack ads. And you're not going to see Priorities USA, for example, running ads showing what a great guy or what a great president Barack Obama is. Instead, you know, their mission is to define the opposition, Mitt Romney defined, of course, in an unflattering way.
DRAPERAnd so -- and the same is true for that matter for Crossroads. Crossroads, having more financial throw weight as it were priorities at least at this juncture, is likely to be spending money not only on the presidential election but also in the congressional and Senate elections as well. And what we will see then is an avalanche of negative ads coming from super PAC world not just in the presidential election as I say but beyond.
REHMSo tell me what the rules are governing super PACs.
DRAPERWell, they're complicated. And, in fact, I was -- it's interesting to hear, you know, Bill say that -- Jonathan mentioned a firewall, and Bill sort of mentioned one that he was -- he had crafted on his own which was that he doesn't talk to his buddies at the White House anymore. And yet it's pretty clear that the rules of the game are implicit, you know, that for President Obama and his campaign organization, you know, they're the custodian of the president's story.
DRAPERWe've seen a lot of negative ads coming out of the Obama campaign as well. But by and large, they're the ones talking about what the president is doing. And the Priorities USA, on the other hand, talks about what Mitt Romney is doing or what he has done or who he is. There are a lot of, you know, rules about, you know, what outside groups and what super PACs can and can't do. But they're, frankly, hastily defined, and it's left up to some degree to these outside groups to determine exactly how they go about their business.
REHMAnd you mentioned the fact that each of these men certainly has contacts within each of the campaigns but both mentioned firewalls. Describe those firewalls and how thick or effective they are.
DRAPERWell, let me give -- I mean, as Jonathan mentioned, there can't be contact or rather contact or coordination between the particular campaign and the super PAC that supports that campaign. And I know that in the case of Priorities USA, in the case of Bill's organization, what they've done is they've invited members of the Obama campaign to speak at Priorities' events.
DRAPERHowever, as I understand it, when Jim Messina, the campaign manager for the Obama campaign, comes to talk at Priorities, Bill Burton will be there to introduce him, then Bill will leave the room while Jim Messina, the campaign manager, talks about the stakes of the election. However, at such an event, Messina, the campaign manager, is not allowed to discuss campaign strategy. So it's all very awkward, and it is -- and it's, I mean, it's indicative of the amorphous world that was created in the wake of Citizens United.
REHMNow, you've talked about Bill Burton. What about Jonathan Collegio and Crossroads? I mean, how does that work? Do you excuse yourself every time someone very close to Romney enters the room? How do you do that?
COLLEGIOWell, you would avoid any kind of strategic conversations, anything that has to do with strategy or coordination on behalf the campaigns or on behalf of your super PACs' efforts. Now, that doesn't mean, you know, if you're invited to a birthday party or something like that and someone from the Republican National Committee happens to be at that party, you don't have to turn around and leave the room. But...
REHMBut how do you avoid that kind of conversation that would automatically and naturally arise?
REHMAnd you do it deliberately. Who's watching? How does anybody know?
COLLEGIOThat's -- you deliberately do not have any of those types of conversations or communications, and it's the same thing for the right as it is on the left.
REHMYou know, I think that that's what bothers an awful lot of people that somehow this firewall is extraordinarily porous. Bill Burton.
BURTONWell, you know, we think the system should be changed. Like, we don't think that this is a perfect way to run an election. We don't think these kinds of group should necessarily exist. And there's a big difference in this election between Democrats and Republicans, President Obama and Gov. Romney, in that President Obama looks at the system and says, we ought to change it. And he tried to change it, and Republicans blocked it repeatedly.
REHMBut then he got on board with it.
BURTONBut Gov. Romney looks at the situation. He says, you know what, this is how campaign finance ought to work. There should be these huge unlimited sums of money. People should be able to play at whatever level they want, whether they disclose their names or not. And, you know, we got engaged because Karl Rove, from Jonathan's group, said that they were going to get involved to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, same with the Koch brothers, same with the other groups in the Republican side. We just didn't think the president should go undefended in the rules as they exist right now.
REHMAnd all the names are public, is that correct, Robert Draper?
DRAPERWell, no, it's not correct. I mean, there's a part of -- under the super PAC umbrella, there are such things as 501 (c)(4) s. They are defined as social welfare organizations. And, no, you can give unlimited amounts and be undisclosed.
REHMRobert Draper, a freelance writer, correspondent for GQ, contributor to The New York Times magazine.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about super PACs, not only their influence but how they work, who contributes to them and then these socially active 501 (c)(4) s that have another umbrella kind of organization as well. Here's the first email from Ken in Alexandria, Va., "Comedy Central Stephen Colbert did a series of reality-based parodies on the flimsy restrictions trying to ensure separation between campaigns and super PACs. He even went as far as creating his own PAC to make his point." Was Stephen Colbert's humorous critique of this situation more correct than not, Robert Draper?
DRAPERIt was correct, yeah. I mean, I think there's no other way to put it. It's a -- the notion, of course, that these are social welfare organizations, that somehow they're promoting social welfare when really all they are are attack ads is a little bit preposterous. And, you know, Bill had said that the Democrats, you know, have -- would love to see this changed. And I do think there are some Democrats who may not feel that way.
DRAPERI do think that's actually been a problem for Priorities in their efforts to raise money because Democrats have chosen to believe, at least, that they are above the notion of giving tons and tons of money for unlimited attack ads. Of course, in 2004, they did exactly that in the America Coming Together and Media Fund PACs that attacked George W. Bush to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
REHMJonathan Collegio, a White House senior adviser said recently that, "we have very few wealthy -- a very few wealthy people running around trying to purchase the White House from Mr. Romney." To what extent is he right?
COLLEGIOWell, I just want to go back to what Robert was saying. I mean...
REHMYeah, but don't forget my question.
COLLEGIOI won't, I won't.
COLLEGIOI won't. But what I would suggest and I would submit that what's going on now on the nonprofits side really is not any different than what's been going on forever on the nonprofit side. Crossroads GPS runs ads about the person's record on jobs and the president's record on debt and the president's record on health care. That's our set of issues. Environmental groups have been running ads on clean air and clean water, naming out specific members of Congress, and, quite frankly, anti-war groups were doing the same thing all from non-disclosed donors in past cycles.
COLLEGIOOn top of that, labor unions, as reported in The Wall Street Journal yesterday, had spent $4.4 billion on political activity since 2005. That's $1.3 billion per election cycle, which far exceeds what the Crossroads groups and what the groups on the right are spending. So there is a lot of money going on. A lot of it is being spent on the left, and a lot of it, quite frankly, is ignored. That's what I would say.
REHMSo how do you answer -- how do you respond to this White House individual, who I think was Mr. Plouffe, who said that, "a very few wealthy people are trying to buy the White House from Mr. Romney?"
COLLEGIOI would say that folks have a First Amendment right to air whatever they believe is their -- are their policy positions. If you're -- if you believe that taxes should be lower, that we shouldn't be spending $800 billion dollars on a stimulus package that didn't create any jobs, you have a First Amendment right to speak that out and to advertise that, advertising being the most effective way to promote your belief.
COLLEGIOEnvironmental groups have been doing it, anti-war groups have been doing it. And I think that if the government wants to go in and shut that down, I think that that's a de facto form of censorship that really should not be part of the debate.
REHMBill Burton, how is what's happening now any different from what's gone on before?
BURTONWell, it's different because corporations can give unlimited sums.
REHMThey're now people.
BURTONExactly. Corporations are people, just like Mitt Romney says, but as Justice Roberts's court ruled in the Citizens United case. So that's a huge difference. And as a result, you've got this influx of so much money into the political process. Now, what Jonathan just mentioned about the $4.4 billion that unions have spent on elections, it's a little bit apples and oranges because what that analysis was based on is everything that unions have done from a federal level, state level, local level, down to school boards.
BURTONAnd to compare that to what's happening in the federal level this time is something that only The Wall Street Journal could come up with as an analysis for -- in an election season. So I think that this time it's different. There's going to be more money involved than there ever has been before. And I worry about what this means for 2016, too, because if this much money is being spent this time and Republicans feel like they can buy elections on a national level, who knows how much money people will spend in 2016 in order to win the White House?
REHMOn the other hand, as you well know, in the last election, Democrat John Kerry outspent President Bush and still didn't matter at all.
BURTONThat's a good point actually because I don't think that the spending is necessarily determinative of who's going to win the election. And I would, you know, I would predict that Republicans are going to far outspend Democrats in this election, both at the presidential level and at the congressional level. But I still think that Democrats -- I still think that President Obama has an edge. It'll be very close.
BURTONBut I think the president has an edge because, you know, they'll have a lot of money, but they need a lot of money 'cause it costs a lot to change people's perception of an incumbent president. And so, you know, the fight is really over who Mitt Romney is.
REHMAnd before we go to the phones, Robert Draper, how do the rules for super PACs differ or compare to those for those 501 (c)(4) s?
DRAPERThat's -- Jonathan would -- could probably answer that question better than me. I mean, it's -- in fact, I would go ahead and defer to him on this because it gets complicated and legalistic, and he was one of the pioneers of it. So you should probably pass it on to him.
REHMAll right, I shall. Jonathan?
COLLEGIOSo what is the status of the (c)(4) s is the question?
REHMNo. I want to know how they compare.
DRAPERThe rules defining to.
REHMHow the rules for five...
COLLEGIOFor 501 (c)(4) ?
COLLEGIOThe 501 (c)(4) s are nonprofit groups. There are 137,000 groups organized as 501 (c)(4) s across the country. And what they have is a general kind of goal, which is their social welfare mission, and it could be on the part of legal conservation voters. It could be protecting the environment. It could be an anti-war (unintelligible). In our case, it's a free market limited government type of goal. And what...
REHMBut isn't that a political goal and shouldn't that -- why would that have tax deferment?
COLLEGIOBecause if you're talking about promoting an environmental issue or you're talking about promoting low taxes or cutting the federal debt, those are all with -- those are not specifically election related.
REHMBut in the meantime, what you're doing is trying to downgrade what the president has done in those areas.
COLLEGIOAnd what I would say is that if you go back and you look at previous election cycles, what's going on now is not any different than the anti-war groups that ran ads very, very critical of Republican senators during the Iraq War in 2007 that the environmental groups have been running for years.
REHMAny different, Robert Draper?
DRAPERWell, one thing, you know, one unit of measurement for something like this, Diane, might be that if you saw a super PAC that was running as a social welfare organization, that social welfare organization consisted of Democrats, Republicans and independents, you know, then it would be one thing. But what, in fact, is the case is that these 501 (c)(4) s are always of Republicans on side or Democrats on the other side.
DRAPERAs you've mentioned there's no way to take this out of politics. I mean, it's -- these social welfare organizations are promoting a political cause which is generally under the rubric of one political party or another.
REHMAnd, Bill Burton, are Democrats using these 501 (c)(4) s as well?
BURTONWell, we have -- we set up our organization the same way Karl Rove set up his because we thought, you know what, and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to the election with the rules that you have, not the rules you wish you had. And so we didn't think that they should have any sort of advantages that we didn't take advantage of. And so our focus hasn't been on our 501 (c)(4). It's been on our 527.
BURTONBut, yeah, Democrats have used 501 (c)(4) s. But the scale to which these are being used now, the way corporations are getting involved because what the Supreme Court did is on a scale far beyond anything that has ever happened in the history of our country.
REHMHow much money has come in from these 501 (c)(4) s?
COLLEGIOFor 2012 and 2011, the goal of the Crossroads Groups is about $300 million. Of that, I don't have a breakdown because we're not to the end of 2012. There is also -- quite frankly, there is the lame duck session of Congress where a lot of expenditures are going to go on by groups all across the board. So it's the difficult to say exactly what the breakdown is going to be.
REHMAnd how does the amount of money that's come in through the 501 (c)(4) s compare with what's come in through the super PACs?
COLLEGIOI want to say in 2010, the breakdown was about 60/40, 65/35, something like that.
DRAPERIf you don't mind, Jonathan, I think it's worth asking, and listeners, I think, would be interested in knowing: Why do people contribute to 501 (c)(4) s as opposed to 527s? These are people who are undisclosed. And why is it that they don't want their names out there? What is it they're contributing -- they think that they're getting and yet want to be anonymous? What would their motivations be?
COLLEGIOWell, I mean, I would submit that if someone were giving to a 501 (c)(4), they'd be more interested in the issue side of advocacy than in the election side of advocacy. They'd be more ideologically focused on lowering taxes, on stopping the, you know, the runaway federal debt and so on and so forth.
REHMAgain, that question of tax exemption, I think, really bothers a lot of people. And yet, you know, coming under this sort of charitable, socially active kind of umbrella doesn't sit well.
COLLEGIOYeah. I mean, it's -- but it's the system that has long existed. The Supreme Court determined a long time ago that a private organization of individuals does not have to give over its membership and donor list to the federal government, that there was no compelling interest for that. So if you're part of a private organization, all those things can remain private.
REHMAll right. We're going to go to the phones, 800-433-8850. To Tuscaloosa, Ala. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARDWell, good morning, Diane, and good morning to you, gentlemen. I have two questions. I'm wondering if we have lost the goal of equality for citizens, one person, one vote. And I'm wondering whether we're facing a corporate politburo in the future.
REHMIs that your question?
REHMAll right. And I'm going to go to you first, Bill Burton.
BURTONWell, I think people should be very concerned about the proliferation of these groups and the role that they can have not just in this election, but elections in the future. You know, when Exxon took over Mobil, it cost them $110 billion. They make, you know, over $80 billion a year in just profit.
BURTONSo if you're a company that spends that kind of money and has that kind of cash around, to know that you could have control of the federal government for far less than what it took to take control of Mobil, then why wouldn't you spend far more money than you're spending right now? That's the danger of these groups. It's not just where they are now, but what they could balloon into if we go forward.
REHMOne person, one vote, Jonathan?
COLLEGIOWell, one thing that I would go back to is that a lot of the actual corporate spending, when you really drill down into it, is about split even between the parties.
COLLEGIOSo in 2010, for example, when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, if you look at corporate PAC donations -- these are the checks that corporation -- that employees of corporations bundle up and send to members of Congress -- the breakdown there was 55 percent toward the Democrats and 45 percent toward the Republicans. So the corporate money and the business community generally spends money helping incumbents who are in office.
REHMYou're shaking your head, Robert.
DRAPERWell, I mean, it's hilarious because what about on the 501 (c)(4) side, you know, where it's not disclosed? I mean, it's -- you can have this argument on what's happening on the super PAC side, but most of the money that you will spend, most of the money you have raised, all comes from your non-disclosed entity. So I think that the -- it is impossible to know exactly how much more corporations are helping which side, but I think it's OK to assume that it's probably the Republican side.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Rockville, Md. Good morning, David.
DAVIDYes. Hi, everybody.
DAVIDI've been following the Supreme Court's decisions, and the only conclusion I can come to is that the Republican super PACs and the conservative members of the Supreme Court are, you know, coordinating their efforts. You know, Citizens United is upheld, and the president's law is attacked -- a tax. Isn't that -- that's great for the Republicans. They think the law is unpopular. That's the only way that they can keep talking about it.
DAVIDIf the law is upheld, it's upheld as a tax. I'm already seeing the attack ads that Obama's raised $2 trillion tax on the American people. And it's just -- it's insane. You know, I was wondering if our panel has any thoughts on that and the idea of publicly funded elections, which have…
COLLEGIOI mean, in general, Citizens United, I think that the impact of it was fairly overblown. The Crossroads groups were going to be formed regardless of the Citizens United decision. It's important to remember also, going back to Robert's point, the center-left groups spent $200 million in 2004, attempting to defeat President Bush. These were George Soros, Peter Lewis, Stephen Bing. They raised all of that money through a group called America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, and they spent tons of money.
COLLEGIOSo, again, these independent expenditures are not anything new. And what's happening with both nonprofits and political groups has been going on for a long time. And I think that it's unfortunate when people are forgetting the impact of the unions because the unions are literally spending billions of dollars.
BURTONThey're spending billions of you go down to the school board level state by state. I mean, the -- and I've seen your -- I encourage listeners to go into the Crossroads website and see -- Jonathan has a video about this where he compares unions to Stalin's Russia. But the truth is...
COLLEGIOI'm happy you watched it.
BURTONIt's -- I've watched it more than once. But the comparison is apples and oranges. Like if you look at what's happening on a local level, it's far different than what's happening on a federal level. And, you know, I think the caller, David in Rockville, is right that, you know, yes, this is a conservative Supreme Court, and, yes, they're going to make decisions that are -- that conservatives probably more agree with than don't agree with, and Citizens United was one of those decisions.
DRAPERAnd yet also, as the caller had suggested, that there must be some kind of coordination here. And I think, if anything, this sort of proves that you don't need coordination. It's implicit what the message is going to be for Republicans in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. Of course that the conservative super PACs will be focusing on health care being a tax. Of course, the Romney campaign organizations will do the same thing.
DRAPEROf course, every Republican congressman will. I mean, that's the message of the day, and it does not require any particular level of genius to come up with that message.
REHMJonathan, who are some of the largest donors to the super PACs?
COLLEGIOSo to American Crossroads -- you could go on the FEC website. All of those are listed, going back to the foundation of the organization.
REHMTell me who some of the largest ones are.
COLLEGIOOff the top of my head, I just would rather not get into that. Anyone who wants to look at the donors for American Crossroads can find that out through the FEC website.
REHMBut you know who they are?
COLLEGIOI mean, they've been widely reported, so it's...
REHMWell, why not say their names?
COLLEGIOBecause it's just as easy for me to say it as it is for somebody to go out and look for it. We prefer not to talk about our donors out of respect to our donors.
REHMHow about the Koch brothers? Do you want to comment on them?
COLLEGIOYou could go to the super PAC, the FEC website and find out who's giving.
DRAPERCharles and David Koch, the chemical and oil billionaires out of Kansas, have a super PAC called Americans for Prosperity. And it's one that will be raising hundreds of millions of dollars, again, to fund -- largely to fund ads, largely negative ads in not only presidential, but congressional and Senate races.
REHMRobert Draper, freelance writer. He's also a contributor to The New York Times magazine. Short break, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back, as we talk about super PACs and their influence. I wonder, Robert Draper, how you feel that super PACs are affecting the overall dialogue on politics in this country.
DRAPERI think that's a good question, Diane, because, you know, the other questions have focused on the how a system awash with money can affect the voting power, but I think that what's more easily discernable is how it affects the political discourse.
DRAPERWhen you have candidates defined in the narrowest of ways and in the most negative ways, it only contributes, I think, to the really corrosive political atmosphere that already exist in Washington where issues are not looked at with any degree of nuance but instead with modifiers such as, you know, socialist or destructive or that -- I mean, it's -- we, I mean, there are Democratic donors who said to me that they feel -- that Republicans hate more than Democrats do.
DRAPERAnd I -- and there's no question there was a lot of hatred going on when George W. Bush was president. But it's also true that due to a variety of factors that super PACs have only exacerbated. Candidates become politicians and show up to Washington already determined not to negotiate with each other, to legislate with each other and are actively discouraged from doing so. And when you have, you know, super PACs funding in such a negative way, it can only contribute to that.
REHMJonathan, what's your view?
COLLEGIOWell, I would say that incumbent members of Congress and incumbent presidents probably don't like super PACs because they are able to hold the elected official to account for their record. So take for example when President Obama came to the White House in 2009. They passed the stimulus bill, $800 billion. They said it was going to bring the unemployment rate down to below 6 percent by this point in 2012. So four years later, we're still above 8 percent unemployment, more than 40 months above 8 percent unemployment.
COLLEGIOWe have portions of the stimulus that very, very plainly did not create any jobs. And I think it's absolutely within the realm of civil discourse to hold a president or to hold an elected official to account for the record that they sold to the American people. We're not talking about monopoly money. We're talking about $800 million -- $800 billion, most of which is borrowed from China that's going to have to get paid for in taxes. And it's important to be able to hold elected officials account for what they have done.
DRAPERWell, except that the first instance of super PACs having an effect on the election were the 2010 midterms, and Republicans, I guess you could say, held Democratic congressmen to account. But they did so by running a series of attack ads saying such and such congressmen votes with Nancy Pelosi 93 percent of the time. Well, that may be, but the vast majority of those votes were procedural vote, like when to adjourn.
DRAPERAnd so, you know, Crossroads and other Republican organizations knew exactly what they were doing. They - and those ads were very effective. But they weren't strictly speaking holding Democrats to account.
REHMBill Burton, what's your view as to how these super PACs are affecting political discourse?
BURTONWell, two things, and I know this isn't a conversation about policy necessarily, but since Jonathan has brought it up a couple of times on the stimulus, I think it's misleading to say that the stimulus did not create jobs. It very clearly put our country back on the path to recovery. Our economy is growing, not shrinking. Four million jobs-plus have been created since that bill was passed. And any independent economist would tell you that it's been a successful piece of legislation. There's just more work that needs to be done.
BURTONNow, as for super PACs and the impact on the discourse, you know, the way we view it is Mitt Romney is a candidate for president of the United States, and people don't know a lot about him. And he's going to make his case, and we think that it's important that we tell people, you know, what the countervailing case is. And so what we've done is we've set out to talk about his business experience.
BURTONAnd what we found is that people don't know that -- even though he says this is why I should be president of the United States, they don't know that, you know, in large part, he made his millions and he made Bain so successful by loading companies up with debt, forcing them into bankruptcy and firing thousands upon thousands of workers. And I think the impact of that on the debate is people know more about Mitt Romney and they can make a more educated decision on who they want to support for president.
REHMSo you think these super PACs are actually helping to educate the public?
BURTONThat's been our goal to educate the public. We don't think super PACs should exist, though, just to be perfectly clear. We think that that the system is more than imperfect and that there should be a pretty serious campaign finance reform. But I can just tell you what we've set out to do, and I think we've been effective at doing it.
REHMAll right. I'm going to go back to the phones. To Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Gaylen. (sp?)
GAYLENOh, good morning.
GAYLENGosh, hi. I just wanted to point out that the First Amendment protects speech, not bribery.
REHMBribery? How do you bring bribery into it?
GAYLENWell, I mean, talking, emailing, sending letters, that's speech. Giving money is bribery.
REHMWell, I think that all campaigns then would have to fall under that umbrella of trying to bribe people. How do you react to that?
BURTONWell, you know, I think that, people who have been giving to us and on our side are interested in seeing to it that the issues that are important to them, be it the environment, be it women's health, be it the economy, that those things are protected going forward. And I don't, you know, like I said, I don't even talk to my friends at the White House let alone to be considered being bribed.
REHMAll right. There is an email here that asks, let's see, "What are the consequences if the super PACs are caught coordinating with the campaigns?" Robert Draper.
DRAPERThey would be fined. And, in fact, fines were levied in 2004 against George Soros, against the Media Fund, America Coming Together and Swift Boats. They were all fined. But the fines take place ex post facto, after the damage is done. The fines can be interpreted, especially since were talking mainly about wealthy individuals, as the cost of doing business. And so they're not going to have any kind of a real serious punitive effect.
REHMAll right. To David in Avon Lake, Ohio. Good morning to you.
DAVIDGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
DAVIDI have a question for the Republican guy. Why -- can you answer this specifically, too, without that really cool, deflective kind of jargon you use? Why should these big companies be allowed to say, oh, in this situation, we want to be treated as a person, oh, in this situation, we want to be treated as a company? Like the BP spill, why didn't they say, well, we want to be treated like a person now?
COLLEGIOI mean, we could get into a discussion about the theories behind corporate personhood. I don't really feel like I'm the expert to be talking about, you know, legal stuff like that so...
DRAPERI think you are.
COLLEGIO...I'll bring it back to the table.
REHMAll right. Any comment?
BURTONWell, I mean, he does make a good point that corporations look to be treated like people when it is to their advantage. But when things like the BP oil spill happens, it's not like anybody at BP went to jail or there is any, like, individual who was affected. It was the company that was affected with the settlement with what happened.
REHMAll right. To Geneseo, N.Y. Good morning, Tony.
TONYGood morning. To mitigate and dilute the detrimental effects of these super PACs, I was wondering what your panelists would think about counting presidential or election parts of their buys towards or increasing the federal matching funds and also increasing the amount of time where the presidential election commission themselves campaign, get reduced rates on purchasing ads.
TONYI mean, Congress can act in that way to -- again, to mitigate the problems of these super PACs. And just one example, on your show, Diane, this morning, there was misinformation given by one of your super PAC guy. China is not the largest holder of U.S. bonds, so they didn't fund the stimulus. U.S. citizens, by and large, hold the largest percentage of U.S. bonds. We ourselves funded that stimulus.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Bill Burton.
BURTONWell, first, Tony, as a Buffalonian, Go Bills. Glad you called in from Geneseo. And, you know, what the president supports is the Disclose Act, which isn't quite as specific as what you're calling for, which is extending the period of time, that campaigns can get better rates, et cetera. What that would just mean is, you know, limits on donations and everything being disclosed. And I think that that would have a big impact on the system.
COLLEGIOI think that the biggest impact on the current campaign finance system that we're dealing with now is actually the McCain-Feingold legislation back in 2002. And what that legislation did is it limited the amount of money that political parties could take from corporations and from wealthy individuals. And what that effectively did -- and everyone knew that this was going to happen when they pass that bill -- is it was going to shift resources from the parties and the party committees to outside groups.
COLLEGIOThe irony here is that the people that are most complaining about the current set of campaign finance laws are quite frankly the people who are most responsible for creating the current system. In a pre-McCain-Feingold era, the messaging and the money would be going through political parties. All of it would be disclose. And that's a system that was changed by, quite honestly, Democrats in the Congress in the early 2000s.
REHMHere's an email from Joe. "Please ask your guests their definition of democracy." He goes on to say, "I don't care if it's Republicans or Democrats or libertarians. This government is being bought and paid for by corporations and special interest groups and has become a plutocracy. I feel the American people, particularly the American middle class, is really sick of it." How do you respond to that, Robert Draper?
DRAPERDemocracy is rule of, by and for the people, I suppose. You know, and -- but as to whether we've become a plutocracy or something, you could certainly make the case of their inequalities in society. You can certainly make the case that there are -- there is a small percentage of people who command the outside influence and what takes place in our political sphere. Yeah, there is no question about that. I'm not sure, though, that any attempts to take money out of politics is necessarily the answer.
DRAPERI mean, that's, you know, implicit. And the discussion we're having a minute ago was if the public wasn't financing campaigns, then how would they be financed. I mean, would we even have public campaigning at all?
COLLEGIODo you want a situation where taxpayers are funding negative ads? The types that no one likes. And what's the alternative to that? If you don't want that situation, you're going to go and have the government shut those ads down or sensor them. So the current system may not appear ideal, but you always have to look at it in terms of what the alternatives are.
DRAPERAlthough -- can I ask Jonathan on the very subject that Bill had mentioned the Disclose Act? And he had said that he doesn't favor the current system. Is there any kind of legislation that you would like to see enacted that would reform the system when you say it's not ideal? But what would your version of the ideal be?
COLLEGIOLet me go back to our chairman -- the chairman of the American Crossroads is a former RNC chairman, Mike Duncan, and he was actually the plaintiff against the McCain-Feingold legislation. And I think that he would argue in favor of going back to a system that we have before 2002 where parties were generally the recipients of large contributions.
BURTONWell, you know, I think that with the system as it is now -- if you take a setback and you look at what the implications are -- in 2008, President Obama, then Sen. Obama, beat Sen. Clinton, who was, you know, part of the most established Democratic family in the country and have a huge Democratic machine behind her. And we're marching towards a place where that could never happen again or you could never have this upstart candidate get involve, get a grassroots moving behind them and actually, you know, win a primary.
BURTONBecause there's so much money. And in the scenario now, the powerful, established, entrenched candidate would just have so much access to so much more money that it would be impossible for another candidate to win.
REHMSo what every happened to one vote, one person? We are seeing a situation where it feels as though corporations are making the decisions for us. Bill.
BURTONIt's disconcerting, you know, that corporations can get involved the way that they can get involved and that people -- wealthy individuals can engage in a way that, you know, is outsized to the democracy.
REHMBill Burton, he's founder and senior strategist for Priorities USA Action, former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House. To Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Ron.
RONYes. Good morning. I just wanted to ask, you know, you talked about how you can't coordinate with somebody upfront. But at the end of the day, when the election is over, these guys don't keep their mouth shut about how -- and the candidate knows in advance anyways whose spending the money. They don't keep their mouth shut about how they help them get elected. We -- I mean, this is just a complete joke. It's something out of a Monty Python skit.
RONSen. McConnell has been complaining ever since he got elected, almost 30 years ago, about how we don't have enough money in politics. But we have more money in politics than any Western nation, and we are the least informed, least knowledgeable, least literate of any society in the Western world.
REHMNot quite. Jonathan.
COLLEGIOI mean, again, what we saw there was, you know, a tirade against one certain type of money and influence in politics. But the caller didn't mention, again, the unions. Now, Bill can say that, you know, the unions are spending them on school board raises and so on and so forth, but it does have a very real impact. Right now, we're in a situation where public employees are increasingly getting paid more than private sector employees through their salaries and benefit packages.
COLLEGIOThat is the result of union influence at the state level, at the local level and the federal level. So, again, $4.5 billion over the last seven years spent by the unions to influence a political process. I just tend to think that, just like federals then said, you're going to have all kinds of factions in the political scene. They're going to balance each other out. And the unions have been doing this very successfully for decades.
DRAPERBut the caller has it right in saying that, basically, these so-called firewalls are the prohibitions against coordinating are a bit of a joke. I mean, it's obvious, for example, the thing that the Democrats need to do right now to undermine Mitt Romney is to define him, to define him early. And that's why Priorities USA is spending so much money early in an effort to define a man who Americans still don't know that much about.
DRAPERIt does not require a senior, you know, senior level strategy meeting between Bill Burton and Jim Messina on the campaign organization to know that that's what needs to be done, and that it's better that the super PAC be coordinating.
REHMBill Burton, last word.
BURTONWell, just on what Jonathan said, you know, unions are responsible for the fact that public employees are making more. But what you're talking about are cops, teachers and firefighters. That's the vast majority of public workers.
COLLEGIOAnd government bureaucrats.
BURTONAnd they deserve to be paid what they're worth. And thank God we have means to make sure that they're getting what they deserve.
REHMBill Burton, he is former deputy press secretary at the Obama White House, founder and senior strategist for Priorities USA Action; Robert Draper, a freelance writer, correspondent for GQ, contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Thank you, all.
BURTONMy pleasure, thanks.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn, and the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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