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First Thoughts: A 'Super' reversal

Team Obama’s Super PAC reversal and “Super” hypocrisy… Messina: “We can’t allow for two sets of rules whereby … Democrats unilaterally disarm”… And screwing up the fundraising vetting.

Larry Downing / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the economy at Fire Station Number Five in Arlington, Virginia February 3, 2012.

*** A 'Super' reversal: Anyone who is surprised by the Obama campaign's announcement last night that it's encouraging Democratic donors to give money to the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action -- after previously criticizing this practice -- wasn't paying attention in 2008. Back then, remember, Obama reversed himself and opted out of public financing for the general election, enabling his campaign to raise some $750 million to win the presidency. That reversal then and this reversal now tell us two important things about Obama and modern presidential politics. One, it's a losing proposition to always put principle above winning. Indeed, the rise of these Super PACs (like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future, and the Sheldon Adelson-backed Winning Our Future) could very well wipe out any fundraising advantage the incumbent enjoys in 2012. And two, as the L.A. Times' Mark Barabak points out, voters rarely care about these kind of process stories. After all, did Obama lose a single vote in '08 due to his public-financing reversal?

*** And ‘Super’ hypocrisy: But make no mistake: The White House is going to receive plenty of heat -- from good-government groups, liberals, and the media -- for this reversal. Why? Because after all of its criticism of Citizens United and Super PACs, last night’s announcement looks hypocritical no matter how you try and rationalize it. Three additional things seem to be going on with this change in policy: 1) The Obama campaign appears to be spooked by the $30 million the pro-Romney Restore Our Future raised in 2011; 2) Democratic donors who wanted to start giving to Super PACs were complaining; and 3) The blessing from the Obama campaign opens the spigot for the Democratic House and Senate Super PACs who had been struggling to raise money since the titular head of the party spent the last year and half demonizing these groups. What’s more, his decision won’t just be a financial boon for the struggling Democratic Super PACs; it’s going to be a seal of approval for the Republican Super PACs. They now have been legitimized by the president and their effectiveness has been highlighted by the Obama campaign. The financial nuclear arms race is now afoot.

*** “We can’t allow for two sets of rules”: In a blog posting last night, Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina wrote that the president “opposed the Citizens United decision. He understood that with the dramatic growth in opportunities to raise and spend unlimited special-interest money, we would see new strategies to hide it from public view. He continues to support a law to force full disclosure of all funding intended to influence our elections… And [he] favors action -- by constitutional amendment, if necessary -- to place reasonable limits on all such spending.” But Messina added, “With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.” He also announced in the blog posting that top campaign aides and Cabinet secretaries would speak at fundraising events for Priorities USA Action, though the president, vice president, and first lady wouldn’t. Three people, in particular, are singled out for this duty: David Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (who formerly worked for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association and obviously has lots of connections with the big donor trial-lawyer community). By the way, the Obama campaign is holding a conference call on its announcement at 11:00 am ET.

President Obama announced he's given the green light to super PACs for his own campaign, and frontrunner Mitt Romney is aiming new attacks at Rick Santorum.

*** Screwing up the vetting: The Obama campaign’s Super PAC reversal overshadowed a New York Times report that the family of a Mexican casino magnate, Juan Jose Rojas (Pepe) Cardona, who fled the U.S. on drug and fraud charges had been bundling money for the campaign. “When The New York Times asked the Obama campaign early Monday about the Cardonas, officials said they were unaware of the brother in Mexico. Later in the day, the campaign said it was refunding the money raised by the family, which totaled more than $200,000.” This kind of story hits at this truth: When campaigns are raising big bucks – whether they are Democratic or Republican – it is human nature that you sometimes screw up the vetting. Fundraisers get so excited about hitting the lottery with a big donor or big bundler that they, perhaps, vet with eye toward finding nothing.

*** And more on the contraception story and the Eastwood ad: Two additional points on some of the other politics topics of the day. One, the White House’s decision on contraception pitted women vs. the Catholic bishops, and Team Obama decided that it was more important not to alienate women’s groups. (In fact, if this story becomes about women’s health, it won’t be a problem for the Obama folks. But it will be a problem if it’s viewed as government interference.) Two, do Republican critics of the Clint Eastwood/Chrysler ad – like Karl Rove yesterday – look like they are rooting against America and the rebounding U.S. auto industry? Remember, the Bush administration also helped bail out Chrysler.

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