Colbert Super PAC Explained

How is it that a Comedian is teaching Americans more about civics than any politician? 

A Brief Timeline

January 2010: The US Supreme Court rules 5-4 in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, that the government may not prohibit organizations such as unions, corporations and political action committees (PACs) from spending money on political campaigns. The ruling was based on the premise that groups of citizens have the same rights as individual citizens and that spending money is a type of free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Shortly thereafter: PACs, which are essentially non-profit organizations that exist to advance the outcome of an election, political issue or legislation, begin to mutate into Super PACs. The main difference is that PACs were restricted in how much money they could spend on election campaigns, whereas Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts. Also, they are not permitted to coordinate with candidates for office. Super PACs are still required to disclose the source of their funds.

May 2011: Stephen Colbert establishes a Super PAC called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and begins soliciting viewers for donations to make tomorrow better. It should be noted here that Stephen’s lawyer is Trevor Potter, the former Commissioner and Chairman of the FEC (the losing side in the Supreme Court case referenced above).

August 2011: Colbert Super PAC’s first TV ad hits the Iowa airwaves. It was weird. The second was mildly disturbing.

September 2011: Stephen Colbert forms a shell corporation (usually established so that companies can do things indirectly in order to avoid publicity and taxes), which allows Stephen to anonymously direct unlimited amounts of money to his Super PAC. I repeat, anonymously! All legal!

January 2012: Stephen announces that he will explore a run for President in the South Carolina Republican primary election. To comply with non-coordination requirements, Stephen legally handed over control of his super PAC to fellow comedian and former boss, Jon Stewart. Colbert Super PAC began to be referred to as the “Definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC”. As the two men pointed out, the fact that they were close friends and business partners was not a legal barrier.

South Carolina Ads: In the run-up to the primary, Stephen suggested that Mitt Romney is a serial killer. Since he could not get his name onto the ballot in time, and since Herman Cain had dropped out of the race already, Colbert Super PAC urged South Carolinians to vote for Herman Cain as a sort of perverted proxy candidate. And then there was the attack ad on how super PACs carry out too many attack ads.  Even Samuel L. Jackson pitched in to narrate this ad, which actually attacks Stephen.

Conclusion: Through Herman Cain, Stephen managed to garner only 1.1% of the vote, good enough for a distant 5th place. But still, 6,324 registered Republican in South Carolina felt it worthwhile to vote for Stephen. I mean Herman. Not too shabby.

In the end, what Colbert and Stewart have shown is that the current interpretation of the law has so many loopholes that will certainly be exploited by moneyed interests. If Colbert and Stewart can legally claim to not be coordinating with one another and get away with their brand of fake political advocacy, there is nothing to stop corporations from wielding even more influence in an electoral system that is already saturated with money.

FYI – here is a list of Super PACs and the candidates they support.

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Spend Freely but Don’t Coordinate

The role of Super PACs in elections continues to unravel as Colbert and Stewart try to expedite the process and thumb their noses at big money in politics.

The ridiculousness of the American electoral process just became more apparent on Thursday night when Stephen Colbert announced that he will explore the possibility of seeking the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States in the upcoming South Carolina primary election. Colbert’s recent electoral activity has included the establishment of a political action committee, known as Colbert Super PAC, in the hopes of influencing/mocking the elections.

Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as a form of free speech that is protected under the Constitution. The main restriction placed on them is that they are not permitted to coordinate with any candidate they are supporting, which led to Colbert’s announcement on his show Thursday night. In order to run, Stephen would be disallowed from coordinating with the PAC that bears his name. Just before announcing his almost-candidacy, and in the presence of his lawyer (and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission), Colbert officially signed over leadership of Colbert Super PAC to his old boss and fellow Comedy Central fake news anchor, Jon Stewart. The PAC was then referred to as the “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC”.

Of course it is absurd that Jon Stewart can run a political action committee in support of (and founded by) Stephen Colbert and claim that they will not be working together, which is precisely what the two hope to expose. Every major candidate currently has at least one Super PAC working on their behalf, and as the fake news duo has shown, it will be nearly impossible to prove coordinating between candidates and Super PACs. This, in spite of clear professional and financial links between the candidates and the PACs that support them.

Colbert’s decision to flirt with the race came in the wake of a recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in which the comedian, with 5% support, finished 6th among Republican candidates – beating Jon Huntsman by one percentage point. It is too late for Colbert to have his name included on the actual ballot in South Carolina, meaning his campaign must rely on write-in votes next Saturday. Expect at least a few humorous commercials to hit the airwaves, in South Carolina and beyond.


Free Speech for Everyone and Everything

Newt gets an easy $5 million and the First Amendment cringes 

In early May 2011, Stephen Colbert established a political action committee called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, better known as Colbert Super PAC, which allows the comedian to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, institutions and individuals. Colbert has stated that the money would be raised not just for political ads, but also “administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”

Colbert’s most recent political project (he attempted to get his name on the ballot in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary) is, more than anything, a playful yet charged response to the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which in common parlance, declared corporations to be people. More specifically, it stated that the government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures about politics based on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The type of speech in question here is referred to as independent expenditure, meaning that a candidate is not permitted to coordinate in any way with those doing the speaking. Candidates can, however, increasingly rely on wealthy donors, who have been emboldened by the new precedent. Late last week, Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner, made a $5 million contribution to Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Republican candidate Newt Gingrich for president. Adelson’s contribution is 1,000 times the legal limit of what he would have been able to contribute to Mr. Gingrich’s official campaign.

Proponents of transparency would argue that at least we know about the contribution and its source. Not quite, and once again, it was comedian Stephen Colbert that captured, and exploited, the ridiculousness of the law’s current interpretation. In September 2011, Colbert and his lawyer, who happens to be the former Commissioner and Chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, set up a 501(c)(4) – a civic organization with the same right to speak (spend money) as a person, but do so anonymously – or as Colbert prefers to call it, a “campaign finance glory hole”.

We now know of one rich man’s $5 million contribution to help his long-time friend become President. Imagine how much money is being thrown at the elections that we do not, and will not, know about.

Exhausting All Options

Mitt Romney and the anticlimactic inevitability of the Republican nominee

Like a homecoming queen desperately trying to find a suitable date to the prom, the Republican Party continues to stumble from one candidate to another, in the hopes of finding an alternative to the seemingly preordained choice of Mitt Romney. The success of Rick Santorum in the Iowa Caucus is merely the latest attempt to avoid the GOP’s current golden boy; with the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, the possibilities have been more or less exhausted.

Before the campaigning got serious, many conservatives seriously considered Sarah Palin as a viable candidate – a line of thinking that was summarily squashed by the Republican establishment and (i.e.) Fox News. Rick Perry launched his candidacy following a stadium prayer rally for a “nation in crisis” and presented himself as the Christian cowboy American wishes it had with George W. Bush. Almost immediately, Michele Bachmann, the then Tea Party favorite, attacked Governor Perry for having signed legislation mandating that children in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV). Bachmann went on to suggest that the vaccine leads to mental retardation and effectively ended her campaign in mainstream America. Within weeks, the party began to feel uncomfortable with Perry’s compassion for the children of undocumented immigrants, and his inability to remember more than two things at a time.

Herman Cain was the next to storm the polls and vanished almost just as quickly, surrounded by several allegations of sexual misconduct, depriving the country of its most prominent token black presidential candidate to date (and more of the funniest/creepiest campaign ads in a long time). Not long afterwards, Newt Gingrich, no stranger to sexual misconduct himself, was elevated to front-runner status as the self-proclaimed intellectual of the Republican Party. In spite of doing all the right things – complaining about black people on welfare and shedding a few tears on the trail – Gingrich’s star began to fade. Perhaps voters knew deep down that they were merely flirting with Newt in the same way they were with Palin, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain before.

Most recently, Rick Santorum, of Santorum fame, walked away as the surprise winner of the Iowa Caucus, even though he came in second. By nearly tying Mitt Romney, voters are stating clearly that they are willing to consider all options in premature unrepresentative non-binding antiquated electoral events.

With a string of high profile endorsements, including those of Senator John McCain, former president George H. W. Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mitt Romney is increasingly looking like the establishment’s choice. Santorum offers a last gasp for those values voters concerned about abortion and the lifestyles of homosexuals – something the establishment fears because they know they are on the wrong side of history. Although Romney claims to be a true conservative, his track record as Governor of Massachusetts indicates that he is certainly capable of successfully serving a traditionally liberal constituency – something that virtually every other Republican candidate views as treason.

If and when Romney secures the nomination, expect to see a shift towards the political center as he attempts to soften much of the conservative credibility he has so fervently worked to build up during the primaries. The most common complaint from voters and his opponents, that Romney is an opportunistic flip-flopper, will be put to the test in the general election when confronted with an increasingly assertive incumbent President.

With each successive primary, Republican voters will be forced to choose. After exhausting nearly every alternative (barring Paul and Huntsman), it looks as though the Party is beginning to admit that it must settle. Deep down, we all knew the homecoming queen would feel obliged to pick the rich, handsome quarterback.