Monday, February 22, 2016

Super PACs love Bernie. So why are we upset when Hillary benefits?

True Believerism is a concept the Cruz supporters on the right have been struggling with for quite awhile, as they scramble to explain away every questionable act or statement from the candidate God himself has apparently anointed (and is willing to kill for). He couldn't possibly have done x, because he's the One True Conservative; and, conversely, no one else is worthy, because only Cruz is a True Believer in conservatism. 

This True Believerism isn't limited to the right, though. Unfortunately, it's something I see on the left from some Bernie supporters who argue that* Clinton is little more than a Republican in Democrat’s clothing, a sort of political apostate. So as time allows over the next days, I’m going to address a few of the claims I've heard, about why Bernie is the One True Liberal.

First up: super PACs.

Bernie doesn’t have an authorized super PAC. Clinton does. So Bernie is running a principled campaign and doesn't benefit from PAC money, whereas Clinton is a sell-out who loves super PACs; Bernie is the true liberal here, and Hillary is the establishment turncoat. Right?

No, no, and no. It’s just not true that Hillary is the only Democrat reaping the rewards of super PAC money this season. On the contrary, Bernie has reaped greater benefits from PAC money than Hillary has. 

But the union is not just busing nurses into Iowa. The union’s “super PAC” has spent close to $1 million on ads and other support for Mr. Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who has inspired liberal voters with his calls to eradicate such outside groups. In fact, more super PAC money has been spent so far in express support of Mr. Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission records.

 So if you believe that Bernie’s revolution is free of the corrupting influence of super PAC money, that, unlike Hillary, Bernie’s rise has nothing to do with cash and super PAC’s, you’re just factually wrong.

Now, it must be noted that these are liberal PACs spending on Sanders, as opposed to spending from a candidate-authorized PAC – because, unlike Hillary, Bernie does not have an authorized PAC. To my Bernie supporting friends who realize that he is benefiting from the PACs to this degree, this difference is often crucial – despite Bernie being the recipient of more super PAC support than Hillary, they'll argue that not personally authorizing it demonstrates a commitment to principle that Hillary lacks.

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. Here's why.

Let’s say I decry The Thing as horrible, and swear up and down that I will never do The Thing to win. But my friends and followers (with no objection from me) are doing The Thing, so I'll win.
This allows me to reap the benefits of personally opposing The Thing; and reap the benefits of my supporters doing The Thing; all while my team trashes the other team for benefiting from doing The Thing.

That’s great politics. It's brilliant politics. I’m just not convinced that it's principled opposition. (And I suspect those who insist otherwise would be of a different opinion if Hillary managed to position herself as a stalwart opponent of PACs while silently reaping such enormous benefits from them).

Which isn’t to say I blame Bernie for not causing a stink about the PACs supporting him.  Unfortunately, that’s the only way to win right now. You don’t get to change the rules until you win the game; and you can’t win unless you play by the rules, as they are now. Not what you want them to be, but what they are. It sounds cynical, but it’s true. And this is something that those running pro-Bernie efforts understand.

 “I do appreciate the irony [of the super PAC spending],” said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United. “All things being equal, we would rather not be doing this. On the other hand, we want to see Bernie as president.”

 If Bernie wants to win, he needs this kind of money. I don’t blame him for neglecting to turn his principled stance against PAC money on those supporters who are willing to spend for his benefit. It’s the pretense (mostly coming from the aforementioned subset of supporters) to a campaign that occupies a money-free moral high ground, a campaign that eschews the pay-to-play rules that all candidacies are subject to, that doesn’t ring true. 

 The fact is, neither Democrat (and no Republican either, for that matter) will get into the White House without significant spending, and without tons of super PAC support. Not until Citizens United is gone, anyway. Hillary acknowledges this and authorized a PAC to spend on her. Bernie decries PACs, but he benefits from them anyway (more than Hillary, in fact). There is no One True Liberal here. Hillary is pragmatic. Bernie is idealistic. But at the end of the day, both candidates are where they are because of super PAC spending. Whether they authorized it or simply reaped the benefits.


* Note: I'm talking about a very specific subset of Bernie supporters. If that does not describe you, this doesn’t apply to you. There are many, many Bernie supporters who do not say this – and if you’re one of them, please know that I am not including you in that group just because you also support Bernie.

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