Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 13 2012 7:58 PM

Why Super PACs Are Good for Democracy

They’ve made the race for the White House a lot more fair.

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What about Rick Santorum’s savior, Foster Friess? The cowboy-hatted billionaire has given louder and prouder speeches about his campaign money than any tycoon since George Soros. He’s given interviews to the New Republic and the Washington Post. He introduced Santorum at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Friess has acted like a venture capitalist, putting seed money in a product and then shouting from the mountains about how more people should buy in.

The big fear about campaign money is that it corrupts the candidates who have to beg for it. “It's simply wrong for our democracy,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign watchdog group Democracy21, “that an individual or his spouse can give $10 million to a particular candidate and thereby potentially buy corrupting influence at the expense of the electorate.”

But that worry applies better to the shadowy bundler than it does to the megabucks super PAC donor. Corruption can’t grow in the sunlight. The people giving big to super PACs are famous. I didn’t fully understand how famous until I tagged along with Gingrich at a speech to Aloma Baptist Church in Florida, when a parishioner asked him to explain why he was taking dirty money from the gambling industry. Gingrich explained that he and Adelson had a simpatico, guns-a-blazin’ view on Israel. Is it corruption if the candidate tells you what he’ll do for the donor?

If only the rest of the campaign finance system worked that way. Allison and Wertheimer, who worked very hard to cure my Pollyannish take on the cuper PAC, point out that the smaller donations, and the ones newly, legally laundered through 501(c)(3) groups, are handy hideouts for corruption. “Take Solyndra,” says Allison. “There's not a single story that mentioned how an Obama bundler invested in this solar company that got a huge government loan guarantee. That only happened when the thing went bankrupt.”

This is fixable. Maybe. House Democrats have introduced a new version of the DISCLOSE Act, the reform bill that would require total transparency on PAC funding. It’s probably doomed—the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like items like a requirement for CEOs to appear in the commercials—but it’s the kind of reform Republicans frequently claim to want—total donation freedom, total transparency. Our super PAC education, so far, has consisted of fat checks matched with information about the check-cutters. We know more about those guys than we know about the bundlers, who’ve been passing money under the table for years. So which of those systems is worse for our democracy?