Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing President Barack Obama, has staged a markedly unimpressive debut. The PAC and its non-profit affiliate raised only about $5 million in the first half of last year, less than half the $12 million garnered by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future super PAC, Politico
The problem: Obama himself isn’t a believer in super PACs, having made a career out of strident opposition to big money in politics.
“I don’t think the president is just ambivalent about his super PAC. He’s flat-out opposed to it,” former South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian, a member of the Obama campaign’s national finance committee, told Politico.
“I was at the national finance committee in Chicago, and these are the people with these connections, and nobody was talking, even behind the scenes, about writing checks to the super PAC,” Harpootlian said.
Two federal court decisions in 2010, including the Supreme Court’s judgment in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, allow super PACs and non-profit groups to bring in unlimited contributions to finance campaign ads.
“That’s a problem. We didn’t make the rules," Harpootlian said. "The president has called out the Supreme Court on Citizens United to their faces. ... But it’s the state of play now, and we have to look at what Romney’s PAC did to Newt in Iowa. It’s dangerous. We can’t unilaterally disarm.”
Obama’s campaign staff witnessed the effectiveness of Restore Our Future’s harsh attacks on Newt Gingrich in Iowa and the lack of a response from the super PAC backing Gingrich. That has some of them worrying about the president’s stance.
And it has put a damper on the Obama camp’s confidence that it has a huge advantage in the fundraising battle. “It’s like when China got the bomb. People are a little shocked and asking, ‘Who lost the super PAC?’ ” a Democrat close to Priorities USA Action told Politico. “We thought we were the ones with cash supremacy. That’s clearly not the case.”
Obama and his top aides have refrained from courting fat cats so far, ignoring the precedent set by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama’s campaign has promised that both the president and his staff will stay away from hawking cash for super PACS.
But Obama’s crew realizes the need to work around that pledge. For the first time, senior campaign staff will permit their top bundlers to ask rich donors for contributions to the super PAC, Politico has learned.
While it’s illegal for super PACs to coordinate with the campaigns they back, Obama’s decision on bundler cross-pollination shows some support for the super PAC.
Paul Begala, a veteran Clinton aide who’s now a CNN commentator, is prodding Clinton supporters to donate to the Obama super PAC. “Super PACs are like guns,” he told Politico. “In the right hands, a gun is useful, essential for defending your country and perfectly acceptable. In the wrong hands, they kill people. ... My goal is to make sure the president doesn’t get outgunned.”
So far, the Obama team has been unable to draw some of the biggest Clinton donors into the fold — Steve Bing, Peter Lewis, Haim Saban and Ron Burkle. Democratic sources tell Politico that Bing, a movie producer, is mulling a “seven-figure contribution” to a Democratic super PAC, but probably one created to help beleaguered Senate Democrats. Hedge fund legend George Soros has stayed away thus far too.
One problem is that many of the very people who could write five-, six-, and seven- figure checks to Priorities USA Action are Wall Street heavyweights who are upset with Obama for his soak-the-rich tax proposals and support of financial regulatory reform.
And Obama is unwilling to engage in policy discussions with his donors, unlike Romney who has attended multiple events for his super PAC.
“This is not a White House that’s gone out of its way to create connectivity with people,” a top Obama bundler told Politico, echoing the frustration expressed by other party fundraisers as well.
One Democratic operative senses ambivalence in the Obama camp. “I go back and forth on whether this is something where they just want control, versus whether they are true believers,” the person told Politico. “I sometimes get the sense of both from the Axelrods of the world — that they think they can do it better and they can also do it in a more high-minded way.” David Axelrod is a top adviser to the Obama campaign.
Bill and Hillary Clinton would be handling things differently, the operative said. “If the Clintons were still in office, they would have brought every single major donor in. Yes, they would have pushed back against Citizens United, but they also would have said ‘Game on,’ and they wouldn’t have let Karl Rove get this huge start.”
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