Outside Group Spending: A Tale of Two Barack Obamas

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White House / Pete Souza

This is a tale of two Barack Obamas.

The first Barack Obama appears in December of 2007. It’s just a few days until the Iowa caucuses, and a shadowy third-party group with ties to John Edwards is about to start running ads, which outrages Obama. He knows that law prevents Edwards from directly coordinating with the group, but he also knows Edwards has the power to marginalize the group, if not scare away its donors or shut it down. “My attitude is if you can’t get your former campaign manager and political director to do what you’d like, then it’s going to be hard to get the insurance companies and drug companies to do what you want,” he tells reporters, referring to the people running the group. Obama then boasts that he will try to shut down any third party group that runs ads on his behalf “just to be consistent.”

The second Obama is the one who just landed in Alabama this morning. Former White House aide and long-time Obama adviser Bill Burton has announced the formation of a new group aimed at raising unlimited third-party checks to support the President’s reelection campaign. This time around, however, Obama issues no call for donors to not give to the group. He makes no boast of his own ability to control former aides. “We don’t control outside groups,” his spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters on the plane ride down. “These are not people working for the administration.” This is what John Edwards once said.

A reversal such as this is unlikely to be forgotten in an environment where every candidate builds his or her brand on their resistance to political expediency. Some of Obama’s appeal has always been based on the notion that he is different than other politicians. But Obama is not breaking new ground here. He previously reversed a pledge to take public financing in 2008 when it became politically advantageous to do so. In 2010, Democrats caterwauled over the lack of donor disclosure from groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. But Burton’s side project, Priorities USA Action, won’t have to disclose any donor information either. By not taking a harder stand against Burton’s new organizations, he risks aligning himself to something that he has routinely condemned.

Democrats will no doubt argue that the rules have all changed since the Supreme Court decided to allow corporations and unions to give unlimited checks to groups like the one Burton has founded. Obama has spoken out often against Citizens United, and his campaign manager, Jim Messina, recently cited the case as a key reason that Obama needs to raise so much money for his official campaign this time around. However, the actual effect of Citizens United on groups like Burton’s remains a little cloudy, because it is unknown whether corporations are giving, or plan to give, money in any substantial sums. Republicans and Democrats have been raising unlimited donations through shadowy groups for years, though the money historically came from individuals. Groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had a huge impact with only donations from individuals. Conservative activists like the Koch brothers would be able to write seven-figure checks from their own accounts even in the absence of the Supreme Court’s latest campaign finance ruling.

What has changed is a matter of potential degree, not kind — the potential cost for Obama to stand on principle. In other words, he opposed outside, unlimited campaign donations when it worked to his political advantage in 2007, and then declined to condemn them when they worked to his political advantage in 2010. This is not the most unexpected behavior of a politician. But it is also not the behavior of a politician who claims to be different from other politicians.

Here is the press release for Burton’s new group:

In response to the extremist right-wing efforts pledged by Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action began operations today.  The Koch brothers have pledged to raise and spend $88 million over the course of the next two years and Karl Rove’s right-wing groups — American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS –have pledged to raise and spend $120 million through 2012.  It has been reported that their efforts combined with other conservative groups, will raise and spend $500 million this cycle.

Priorities USA is a 501(c)(4) organization dedicated to mobilizing Americans to preserve, protect and promote the middle class, and to ensure opportunity and freedom for the next generation.  It will advocate for economic policies that generate jobs here in America through innovation, education and investment in the infrastructure vital to our future success.   Priorities USA will support policies that are fiscally responsible and reflect America’s core value of fairness. It will oppose right-wing attempts to harm the American middle class in order to bestow special treatment on special interests. It will promote national security policies that protect our nation, defend our interests and enhance America’s position as a respected world leader.

Priorities USA Action is an Independent Expenditure PAC that supports candidates who will advance policies that provide the strongest and most sound outcomes for middle class families.

Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney will serve as senior strategists to both groups.  Paul Begala will be senior advisor to the efforts.

“This is an effort to level the playing field.  Americans deserve an honest debate about job creation, the economy, national security and education.  That debate will never happen if only right wing extremists are engaged on the battlefield,” said Sean Sweeney.

“While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars.  We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of the double standard are over,” said Bill Burton.

“We’re eager to meet Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers in the public arena. As long as they’re spending millions telling lies in their effort to destroy the middle class, we will answer them by telling the truth,” said Paul Begala.

CORRECTION and UPDATE: In the original post to this story, I wrote that the pro-Edwards 527 ad attacked Obama. The ad can be seen here. It was a positive spot. The story has been corrected.

Also, the parallels are actually more ironic that I previously noted. Here is what Obama told Politico about Edwards’ ability to get the ad pulled:

“The fact is this is somebody who worked for John Edwards, for the last who knows how many years, who’s a good friend and colleague of Edwards, who’s now running a 527 that is running ads on behalf of John Edwards. [Laugh] You’re telling me he has no influence over him? That’s not true. If [Obama communications director] Robert Gibbs started running a 527 and I called Robert Gibbs and said, ‘Stop running ads on my behalf,’ are you suggesting I would have no influence over Robert Gibbs?”