This week's news brought an early glimpse into the inner workings of a novel species of political animal: the SuperPAC. These beasts were unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" decision, which included campaign contributions as a protected form of free speech, and granted constitutional protections for such expressions to corporations and unions, extending a line of cases whose humble origins date to a footnote in an 1880s railroad case. However you feel about those conclusions, it is clear that SuperPACs will play a major role in the general election (as they did in the GOP primaries), so it may be useful to peek inside this new breed of cat.
The specific organization in-question is the "offspring" of a fiscally conservative billionaire named Joe Ricketts, whose various interests include TDAmeritrade brokerage and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The corporate entity, known as The Ending Spending Action Fund, commissioned a proposal to attack the incumbent President. The response was a 54-page plan, titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama" (because without the middle name, the Prez might have been confused with all those other Barack Obamas).
We may tend to forget just how routinely rough and tumble political campaigns have been in this country. Forget Willie Horton -- in 1800, Thomas Jefferson's campaign accused John Adams of plotting to marry his son to King George's daughter, thus somehow re-establishing British hegemony over the former colonies. Adams countered by calling Jefferson "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." And who of my generation can forget the1964 LBJ ad in which a little girl's flower petal game is interrupted by a nuclear holocaust? By contrast, the Ricketts proposal sounds an almost complimentary tone, cynically calling Mr. Obama "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln."
In the Ricketts plan, a high-profile group of former GOP strategists (or "pirates," to use their term) sought to attack the President's likeability by linking him to incendiary "black liberation theology" excerpts from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons. They proposed spending some $10 million to produce materials and buy media to coincide with the Dem Convention in Charlotte this summer. By depleting Obama's personal popularity, they hoped to open the door to the idea that someone else could do a better job -- "perhaps even Romney," in their words. To counter anticipated charges of racism, they recommended engaging a prominent conservative African American as primary spokesperson (and even claimed to have located such an individual).
Personally, while I believe that Mr. Obama does have an attractive persona -- nearly too cool for school -- the electorate has gotten to know him over the four years since the last campaign. Resurrecting Rev. Wright to play boogeyman at this late date seems awfully stale. Then again, these "pirates" were trying to persuade the owner of the Cubs -- a team that hasn't won anything since the Roosevelt Administration (Teddy's), so perhaps they'd have secured Mr. Ricketts' approval -- but for the fact that the plan leaked to the press while still under review.
The reaction was swift and remarkably bi-partisan. Mr. Romney, to his credit, stated "I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described. I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work." Mr. Ricketts also backed away from the stinker, calling it just one of several approaches under review. The Obama campaign gleefully sought to maximize its fund-raising potential.
What does this portend for the general election? Condemnation of the Ricketts Plan is a good start, but, as the saying goes, there's never just one roach in the kitchen. Both major party candidates have elements in their make-ups that will tempt opponents to play to deep fears and prejudices -- racial and religious. And you can bet that their tacticians are seeking ways to exploit those perceived weaknesses. SuperPAC influence will also reach down into the other federal races, as the polarized Parties seek advantages that can end the current Potomac stalemate. I suspect they will insinuate themselves into every element of the traditional and new media -- including the Comments sections of newspaper websites (but not here, of course). I think it's possible that the SuperPACs will over-play their hands, so saturating the ether that the electorate will tune them all out.
It does seem clear in this new era that never has it been more important for the electorate to arm itself with reliable information on its choices. Will we choose to do so? I'm reminded of the Benjamin Franklin quote: "We have given you a Republic -- if you can keep it." While ol' Ben may not have had SuperPACs specifically in mind, he was right about the dire responsibilities of self-governance. And so his question remains current: WILL we keep it?