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The American Debate: Groups are changing the political landscape


Pop quiz! Identify these political heavy hitters:

Edward Conrad, Robert Mercer, John Paulson, Bob Perry, Julian Robertson, Paul Singer, Sheldon Adelson.

Give up?

They're very rich people who have inaugurated a brand new era of politics in America, the Daddy Warbucks era. Their lavish donations have been directly responsible for the unprecedented glut of toxic TV attack ads that have debased the Republican presidential race, most recently in Florida.

The first six donors (all of whom are investment bankers and hedge fund executives, with the exception of home builder Perry) have ponied up at least $1 million apiece for a pro-Romney group known as Restore Our Future. This loftily titled entity aired 4,969 negative spots during the Florida primary campaign. The ads all targeted Newt Gingrich, depicting him as a lying, unstable, erratic hypocrite who profited off the misery of Florida's foreclosed homeowners.

Adelson, the seventh listed donor, has single-handedly kept Gingrich alive in the race. He and his family have shelled out $10 million to a group known as Winning Our Future, which aired 1,893 spots in Florida. Most were negative. All the negative spots targeted Mitt Romney, depicting him as a lying, flip-flopping hypocrite who amassed his fortune with the help of "blood money."

We can thank the U.S. Supreme Court for all this. The five Republican appointees ushered in the Daddy Warbucks era two years ago, when they basically decreed in the Citizens United case that the rich and the special interests should be free to spend unlimited money to influence political discourse.

A century of laws and decades of high-court rulings had previously banned the big dogs from running wild with their money, lest their huge megaphones drown out everyone else. But Citizens United swept away those laws and precedents. Under the new ethos, the system is rigged for the rich. Money equals speech. The more money you have, the more speech you can buy. Basically, the John G. Roberts Jr. court has become the judicial arm of the one percenters.

Now, at the dawn of the 2012 race, we're already seeing the consequences. And, ironically, it's the Republicans who have suffered the most. The TV ads bankrolled by those heavy hitters have been so ubiquitous and so scabrous that Romney's unfavorable rating has soared in the national polls (Gingrich's unfavorable rating was already high), costing him support among swing-voting independents.

Officially, of course, Restore Our Future has nothing to do with Romney. In today's new parlance, it's known as a super PAC, a mutant growth hatched in the Supreme Court lab. The majority opinion, and a subsequent federal appeals court opinion, essentially said that even though rich people cannot donate more than $2,500 directly to a candidate (the legal ceiling), they would henceforth be free to pump as much money as they desired into "independent" groups - with the proviso that these groups not coordinate strategy with the campaigns.

What a joke that is. In practice, the super PACs don't need to coordinate anything, because they're run by campaign allies who already know what needs to be done. Rick Tyler, a top player in the pro-Gingrich group Winning Our Future, is an ex-Gingrich press secretary who worked for Gingrich as recently as last spring. Restore Our Future was founded by Romney aides - and the hedge fund executives who fund it most lavishly are intimately familiar with Romney's policy priorities and short-term political needs.

All told, one sentence in Justice Anthony Kennedy's 2010 majority opinion may set a modern record for naivete: "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

His argument made no sense. He didn't touch the federal law that caps campaign donations at $2,500; that law was enacted to prevent big donors from corrupting the candidates. And yet he contended that if big donors sent unlimited money to independent groups that advocate for the very same candidates, it would not be corruptive.

That thinking has led to the creation of today's shadow campaigns - evil twins of the official campaigns - that are now free to raise and spend whatever it takes to do the requisite dirty work. The discourse has already been corrupted. Even though voters typically complain about negative ads and claim to ignore them, the ads do work. It's no accident that Gingrich's two worst plummets, in Iowa and Florida, occurred while he was being pummeled in ads sponsored by Restore Our Future. ("Too much baggage . . . half-baked ideas . . . On leadership and character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan . . .")

The Republican primary season may also be unnaturally extended, thanks to the super PACs. As long as Adelson is willing to bankroll Gingrich's shadow campaign, Gingrich has oxygen. As for third-wheel Rick Santorum, he has his own rich benefactor. Wall Street investor Foster Friess has publicly vowed to prop up the Red, White and Blue super PAC, a pro-Santorum "independent" group, just to keep Santorum alive through the month of March.

But the superest super PAC is Restore Our Future, which dumped $9 million worth of ads into Florida alone - thanks not only to the generosity of the aforementioned million-dollar donors, but also to folks like Miguel Fernandez, a private-equity executive who wrote a check for 500 grand; Harlan Crow, a Texas construction mogul, who paid 300 grand; investment executive Paul Tudor Jones, who donated 200 grand; and senior Goldman Sachs executives, including the Romney family's in-house financial adviser, who combined for $385,000. (These names surfaced in the Jan. 31 filings with the Federal Election Commission, a toothless watchdog that at least prompts some measure of disclosure.)

The whole point of campaign-finance reform, in the post-Watergate era, was to curb the outsize clout of monied interests. But that doesn't wash in the Daddy Warbucks era. The unleashed financiers of today's shadow campaigns aren't investing just to be altruistic; on the contrary, the big Romney players at Restore Our Future will surely expect some policy return on their money if Mitt goes all the way.

Which brings to mind a remark reputedly uttered a generation ago by the late Sen. Russell Long: "The distinction between a large campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline's difference." And now that the one percenters have been freed up to underwrite shadow campaigns, that fragile hairline is thinner than ever.

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