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Obama Campaign Copies Gingrich -- Decries Then Embraces Super-PACs

The 2012 money race is on, with both sides looking to secretive groups to fuel their ad wars.

On Monday night, Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, threw in the towel for a candidate who only two years ago faced the U.S. Supreme Court during his State of the Union and criticized its Citizens United ruling expanding independent spending in federal elections.

Messina blogged that his team would do exactly what Newt Gingrich's did after Iowa’s caucuses. He decried the newest legal entity used to launder big money in the 2012 campaign, the super-PAC, which  Citizens United helped to create, and then announced that Obama had no choice but to respond in kind.

Of course, campaign nanager Messina did not quite put it that way. Instead, he said Obama was a good guy, believed in campaign finance reforms like disclosing donations and even amending the U.S. Constitution to give Congress authority to limit spending, and he whacked the Citizens United ruling. But then, using the same mutually assured destruction logic that Richard Nixon and other arms race-embracing cold warriors held above American heads for decades, Messina said Obama had to match the GOP’s stealthy tactics step by step, including super-PACs.

“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 said. “Our campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands.”

If you want to understand how campaign money shapes the national political culture and why federal lawmakers are so reluctant to change the system that gave them power, don’t look at what they and their campaign managers say about reform: look at what they do about raising campaign money.

“When you think about the history of big money in politics, the Democrats and Republicans trade innovations with each other,” said Bill Allison, who oversees the Sunlight Foundation’s Reporting Group . “The reason Obama is blessing the super-PAC is he’s worried about money.”

Messina’s post was filled with pragmatic justifications. Nearly 98 percent of the Obama campaign’s donations were $250 or less. Not so with Mitt Romney’s 2011 fourth quarter donations, according to their FEC reports, showing 9 percent were under $200. On the Republican side of the aisle, the super-PACs behind various candidates and the even more secretive non-profits (like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS) had raised nearly $50 million, and much of that in six- and seven-figure increments.

So now the ever-reluctant president, according to Messina, would send top administration officials to their super-PAC fundraising events, including cabinet members, where very wealthy people will be asked to write some very big checks to super-PACs help re-elect Obama.

“What this change means practically: Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events,” Messina said. “While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won't be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA. I should also note that the president, vice-president, and first lady will not be a part of this effort; their political activity will remain focused on the president's campaign.”

Messina’s blog-post is a big deal. It shows, once again, that regardless of political party, political promises, and reformist hopes by one’s supporters, that unless candidates do everything to win—and that starts with raising as much money as they can or having supporters do it in secretive ways for them— nothing else matters. Indeed, in 2008, it was Obama who had the upper hand in fundraising and became the first presidential candidate ever to reject public funds, as they would be less than what he was able to raise from donors.

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