On Monday night, President Barack Obama announced that he is giving his blessing to Priorities USA, a Super PAC supporting his reelection. Campaign manager Jim Messina, writing at the Obama campaign’s official blog in a post titled “We Will Not Play by Two Sets of Rules,” declares that the change in position is a necessary response to Republican-favoring Super PACs. Thus, even though the president supports a constitutional amendment to allow for “reasonable limits” on campaign spending, winning reelection has to come first.
If this sounds familiar that’s because four years ago the Obama campaign issued a nearly identical apologia for the then-Senator’s decision to renege on a promise to take part in the presidential public-financing system. Then, as now, it was presented as a choice forced upon the campaign; he didn’t want to do it, but had to because the other side was “gaming” a “broken” system of regulations.
Such excuses are commonplace. Self-styled “reformers” claim they have to work within the system to change the system. But these excuses expose the hollowness of the arguments for stricter limits on campaign finance.
The theory behind campaign finance limits is that political spending causes corruption. But there is no evidence to support this belief and good reason to believe that both political spending and corruption are driven by excessive government power. Indeed, the response to the President’s change in position reveals that even the reform lobby doesn’t believe that political spending corrupts everybody. The New York Times criticized the President’s decision as a betrayal of his stated principles, but made no suggestion that the President is personally more corrupt because of it. Ditto Common Cause, which called the move merely “disappointing.” Ditto Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, who described the move as “regrettable” but “inevitable.”
It seems that many people believe that the President is guilty, at most, of hypocrisy. Perhaps they believe that the only candidates who are actually corrupted by money in politics are those who don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to ban or otherwise restrict peaceful political speech and association. But that is not a serious account of political corruption—it’s just cheerleading for one’s preferred side of the political debate.
For our part, we don’t object to President Obama encouraging people to give to Super PACs supporting his reelection. Nor do we believe that his decision to do so makes him any more or less corrupt. What we do object to is the apparent belief by some that a political candidate can demonstrate integrity by promising to ban other people’s political expression once elected.