Last summer when Stephen Colbert appealed to the FEC to recognize his Super PAC as legal and allowable under election regulations, almost no one in America understood what a Super PAC was. Hell, almost no one except political wonks knew what the acronym PAC even stood for, say nothing of understanding what distinguishes a Super PAC from a regular PAC. And probably even fewer understood either’s connection to the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United.
And then came Stephen Colbert, barreling through the normally fairly solid wall between political satire and actual politics.
Colbert’s Super PAC, ‘Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow’ announced recently that it has raised a million dollars—and in the process, educated us on the insanity of Super PACs. Super PACs exploit the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows anonymous campaign donations. They’re political action committees with unlimited powers of fundraising and spending that don’t have to disclose their donors—including from corporations.
Thanks to Colbert, this probably all sounds familiar by now. Colbert recently told Ted Koppel for NBC’s “Rock Center”: “A PAC can only take so much money, it can only spend so much money, and I wanted to spend unlimited amounts of money and receive, more importantly, unlimited amounts of money, and so my lawyer told me all I had to do was add a cover letter that said that I intend this to be a Super PAC and it was a Super PAC.” When Koppel asked Colbert how much his Super PAC had raised he said, “The fun thing about that is I don’t have to tell you.”
Why it would take attention from Stephen Colbert to explain that allowing corporations to spend indiscriminately on getting a candidate elected and therefore wield undue political influence is a bad idea is a mystery. Nevertheless, six months after his Super PAC crusade began, most of us are hip to the concept of the Super PAC and aware of its corrupting potential.
In fact the issue has emerged to the front of mainstream political conversation to the point that Matt Lauer asked President Obama about it his Super Bowl interview.
“One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called super PACs,” Obama told Lauer. “There is gonna be just a lot of money floating around, and I guarantee a bunch of it’s gonna be negative.”
Of course, Obama opposed Citizens United and anonymous political spending from outset and ColbertPAC isn’t probably at the top of his mind in worrying about negative attack ads. (And it’s hard to imagine a negative message from a group whose slogan is “Building a better tomorrow, tomorrow.”) But Colbert’s work in pushing Super PACs forward in political conversation could be seen as a big part of why it could be brought up in a prime time interview as a mainstream, commonly-understood issue.
Of course, despite denouncing Super PACs Obama stops shy of accepting money from them altogether. Politico notes, “Two former White House aides have formed a super PAC, Priorities USA Action, which — along with an affiliated nonprofit group — hopes to raise $100 million to support Obama.”
“Would I love to take some of the big money out of politics? I would,” Obama told Matt Lauer. “Unfortunately, right now partly because of Supreme Court rulings and a bunch of decisions out there, it is very hard to get your message out without having some resources.”
Some resources may be a bit of an understatement. Obama’s 2012 war chest is expected to break all kinds of campaign-finance records. Looks like we can expect to be inundated with political messaging and ads this year.
But the silver lining? With any luck we should get hit with some ads from ColbertPAC along the way, and they will probably be hilarious.