Contra George Will, candidates can’t be king without super PACs


There are two important things in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second thing is. — Mark Hanna.

Syndicated columnist George Will dismisses the influence of super PACs and the big donors that fund them in the current Republican presidential primary contest. “Notice that the fellow with the most muscular super PAC, Mitt Romney, has failed to vanquish a singularly weak set of rivals. Might the power of political dollars be finite, and utility of the last dollar be less than that of the first? Who knew?” Will writes, and goes on to argue that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had little to do with the emergence of groups that can raise money in unlimited amounts and spend it to advocate for the election or defeat of federal candidates (we disagree, and explain why here).

More interesting is Will’s contention that all the millions spent by the Restore Our Future hasn’t put Romney over the top against “a singularly weak set of rivals.” This is interesting, because Will previously argued that Romney himself is a weak candidate. “Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November,” Will wrote in October 2011, “is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate.”

While various polls showed him dropping behind the likes of Texas Governor Rick Perry (a well-funded candidate who much better than Romney makes the case that money might not be everything in politics), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, when it’s time to count the ballots, Romney has come out on top, consistently enough to give him an early lead in the all-important delegate count. Will’s recidivist reviser continues to wrack up primary victories–not everywhere, but enough to remain the favorite (if not the lead-pipe cinch) to win the nomination. One factor in Romney’s ability to survive the various challenges he’s faced from candidates who’ve briefly caught fire (Perry, Bachmann, Cain, to some extent Gingrich) or have mounted old style retail campaigns (Santorum) or had rousing debate appearances (Gingrich) has been Restore Our Future, which by itself has spent more than the combined totals of the super PACs supporting Gingrich, Santorum, Ron Paul (and for good measure, Perry and Cain as well). For example, look at its spending in Michigan, where Romney eked out a close victory.

What puts Romney’s chances of victory in doubt is that a few well-heeled donors can prop up the campaigns of their opponents. Gingrich remains a viable candidate heading into Super Tuesday because of the millions the Adelson family have given Winning Our Future, and Santorum remains a threat thanks to Foster Friess and William Dore–the latter recently pumped $1 million into the Red White and Blue Fund.

Whichever set of kingmakers sees their candidate take the oath of office on January 20, 2013 (remember, President Barack Obama has a super PAC of his own, and has plans for administration officials and cabinet members to raise money for it), they will have done more to help elect that candidate than any set of donors since the Federal Election Campaign Act limited the amounts individuals could contribute to a political campaign. We know that big bundlers and donors get access to administrations, and we know that, as the case of Solyndra shows, that doesn’t always work out well for taxpayers. That has always been the real scandal in money in politics–one that Will in his column ignores.