Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Why Won't Bernie Denounce Super PAC Spending That's Helping HIM?

Bernie on the stump / Phil Roeder, CC-BY 2.0

The New York Times, reporting on Friday, January 29, 2016:
“Bernie Sanders is Democrats' Top Beneficiary of Outside Spending, Like It Or Not”

*This was the original, accurate headline. The NYT later subbed in a misleading, click-bait headline, which I really wish they'd get rid of.* 

I'm waiting to hear Sanders supporters - ANY Sanders supporters - call on Bernie to immediately and publicly repudiate the $5.3 million+ that super PACs have spent so far – much of it in Iowa and New Hampshire – to help Sanders and hurt Hillary.  At the very least, denouncing the $4.3 million in right wing attack ads that have been targeting Hillary would seem to be a gimme.

For the sake of consistency, if Bernie thinks all PACs are bad, he should probably respectfully request that UNNA not spend their super PAC money trying to elect him, either.  Ditto for myriad other Bernie-endorsing organizations, including, which recently endorsed Bernie, and which spent almost a million dollars on campaign ads in the 2014 election season (note: MoveOn Political Action is a federal PAC rather than a super PAC, so they at least disclose their donors.)

But neither Bernie nor his supporters have voiced any such concerns.  Instead, I hear Sanders supporters attack Hillary as "not really supporting campaign finance reform" because she's competing within the system we currently have.  I don’t recall hearing these folks objecting to President Obama benefiting from Priorities USA’s spending on his behalf in 2012.  Nor are they mad about Bernie now benefiting from dark money.

For some reason, among certain progressives, the only person for whom this is problematic behavior is Hillary.

Bernie sloughed off questions about super PAC spending on his behalf by making a distinction without much of a difference:

“‘The difference is a pretty simple difference,’ Mr. Sanders told reporters on Tuesday. ‘Hillary Clinton goes out raising money for her own super PAC. I don’t have a super PAC, and in the best of all possible worlds, which I hope to bring about, we will get rid of super PACs, we will overturn Citizens United.’”

It’s true that Bernie apparently hasn’t helped any super PACs fundraise.  But as I mentioned before, that’s beside the point. If Bernie were to win the nomination, motivated folks with cash on hand *will* organize and spend their funds to try to ensure Democrats hold on to the White House. Whether Bernie likes it or not.

There are two primarily pro-Hillary PACs - Priorities USA was started to help Obama’s re-election in 2012 (and spent $65 million going after Romney), and has thrown its support behind Hillary for 2016.  And David Brock started a super PAC called “Correct the Record,” which seems to have spent some money taking shots at Sanders during the primary.

Most of the super PAC money being raised by Priorities USA – the PAC Hillary actually helps raise funds – is being socked away to help Hillary in the general election.  Given that conservative PACs have already spent $4.3 million just to try to defeat her in the Iowa caucuses (as of Friday), her supporters’ desire to have cash on hand to refute GOP attacks seems a completely reasonable strategy.  In fact, refusing to do so in the current environment would basically be suicidal.

One Bernie supporter blogged that the NYT calculus wasn’t accurate, because they only looked at independent expenditures and didn’t factor in pro-Hillary groups’ operating costs. (His post caught currency in pro-Bernie circles, and was cited here and here.) He contended that the $2.2 million that Correct the Record and Priorities USA have (per his estimate) spent on personnel and various operating expenses over the past six months should be factored into the count, and if it is, Hillary’s received more “benefit” from third-party spending. Others have eagerly passed this analysis along. 

But if you do that for the pro-Hillary/anti-Bernie side, you have to do the same for the Pro-Bernie/anti-Hillary camp.  UNNA, four other Bernie-endorsing national unions, various local union affiliates, MoveOn, Democracy For America, and the various conservative PACs that have been working pro-Bernie and/or anti-Hillary *also* all have operating expenses.

Factoring these operating expenses in (given the limits of current disclosure requirements, anyway) would be tricky, at best.  For PACs that do a lot more than just weigh in on Presidential contests (e.g. Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, DFA, most unions, Crossroads GPS), you’d have to independently estimate what proportion of those expenses is fairly assigned to a given campaign or contest.  Given that hurdle, and because there is no reason to think that the pro-Hillary groups’ operating expenses are substantially greater than those of groups in the other camp, the NYT reporter’s decision to focus only on actual independent expenditures makes sense.

But either way, Sanders supporters can’t have it both ways.  If Hillary is a hypocrite for operating within the system we currently have, rather than denouncing it and refusing to "accept" outside spending (which isn’t legally possible, anyway), then Bernie is a hypocrite, too.  

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