March 26, 2012
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They are anti-democratic and turning the 2012 presidential campaign into an extreme sport for the wealthy, but they are destroying the modern Republican Party in the process. Call it the paradox of the Super PACs.
These big-money operations have made a mockery of campaign finance laws and even the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling by being shadow campaigns for candidates and giving a handful of rich people an unprecedented level of power in the presidential race. But perhaps we also should thank the multi-millionaires writing outsized checks to benefit Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum because their obstinate crusades—and Mitt Romney’s erratic replies—keep reminding anyone paying attention that today's Republican Party is not just a mess, but is collapsing from within.
It is not as if the Democrats are a model of unity—although they may have more discipline than today’s GOP. Rather, the super PAC-funded media wars among the Republicans have brought a breach into the open that the GOP establishment can no longer contain: the fight between the Republican Party's hardened right (religious conservatives and Tea Partiers) and the party's business-first corporatists.
It used to be the GOP establishment could appease the right, by giving them planks in the party platform and letting the likes of Pat Buchanan speak at their convention, and then mostly ignore them after Election Day.
But that script no longer holds in 2012 and we can thank the super PACs for uncorking this festering schism. Anyone with enough cash can propel their candidate into yet another primary contest and the GOP establishment cannot do anything about it because it can't control its right wing.
This rebellion from within has been driven by super PACs, which have gotten a majority of their funds in six- and seven-figure donations.
According to a Huffington Post analysis
, nearly $100 million has been spent by super PACS through the end of February with two-thirds coming from people who have given $500,000 or more—mostly to support various Republican candidacies. Until a series of federal court rulings in 2010 created the super PAC loophole, individual donations to official presidential candidate campaigns were capped
at $2,500. Super PACs get around that by pretending to operate independent of the candidates, even though Romney, Gingrich and Santorum know the super PAC staffers and have met with major donors.
Critics have bemoaned how a handful of wealthy individuals have not just flouted what remains of the nation’s campaign finance laws, but have had the effect of monopolizing the airwaves in GOP primaries and caucuses, preventing more moderate candidates and viewpoints from gaining traction. (Donors to Democratic super PACs, in contrast, mostly have not seen their money spent yet.)
It is true—the super PAC loophole is terribly anti-democratic. But perversely, they may be doing the nation a great service by putting the collapse of modern Republican Party before voters in state after state.
The hard right, now led by Santorum and Gingrich, would rather go down fighting and lose on principle, taking their party—or what remains of it—with them, rather than compromise and see their ideals wither under the big tent of "pragmatism." That is the message Santorum and Gingrich keep driving home. And according to astute observers, this fight is going to continue for weeks. Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz put it this way on PBS this weekend:
“Rick Santorum has not won any contest where evangelicals make up less than 50 percent of the electorate of the state. And Mitt Romney has not won a state in which evangelicals make up more than 50 percent. But if you go down through the rest of the states, you can see Romney winning a whole series of races in April. And then if Santorum is somewhat alive, Santorum going on a winning streak in May.”
Does anyone remember the last time there was similar open warfare between the GOP’s hard right and the party's pro-business mainstream—and who came out ahead?
It was almost four years ago—on the eve of the Republican National Convention—and the response by the hard right, including the GOP bloviator-in-chief, Rush Limbaugh, led to the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee.
Going into the convention, John McCain and his staff were all but set on picking Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman—a pro-war Democrat turned Independent—as the vice presidential nominee. There was one problem: Lieberman was pro-choice. McCain’s staff knew it would split the party, but thought a unity ticket would have appeal. As word leaked, they underestimated the vehemence behind the hard right’s response. Limbaugh said a pro-choice VP would, “put the conservative movement in the bleachers.”
Instead a panicked McCain campaign picked Palin from a long list of Republican elected officials. And ideological conservatives have not kept to the bleachers since. In 2010, the Tea Partiers changed the face of the U.S. House and many state legislatures. In 2012, neither Gingrich nor Santorum care if the likely GOP nominee, Romney, is battered for months.
Who can we thank for the intraparty warfare that is showing the electorate that no Republican is fit to occupy the White House in 2013? The answer is the party’s millionaires and their super PACs. They may be undermining and distorting the Democratic process in deeply disturbing ways, but they also are hastening the demise of the modern Republican Party.
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).