Priorities USA, Crossroads GPS, and fighting fire with fire

PRIORITIES USA, CROSSROADS GPS, AND FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE…. One of the more important political developments of the day is news of a new progressive campaign operation called Priorities USA. But as the group’s efforts get underway, it’s worth having a debate about principles and pragmatism.

The operation is actually going to include two entities: Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. One will disclose its donors, the other won’t. The two-pronged fundraising effort intends to raise $100 million to defend President Obama’s re-election bid from a massive right-wing attack operation, and is being run by former White House insiders, led in part by Bill Burton.

If the model sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that — it’s basically the same setup Karl Rove helped put together with Crossroads GPS. Just as with Rove’s operation, Priorities USA will benefit from unlimited, secret donations, including funds from lobbyists and political action committees whose checks Obama won’t accept.

Some credible voices on the left aren’t happy about this, and Republicans are already screaming bloody murder, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy. On the surface, that seems like a legitimate point — Dems, including the president himself, spent a fair amount of time just last year condemning the notion of secret contributions in campaigns. Now, Priorities USA intends to do exactly what Dems said they’re against.

And while I think that criticism seems fair — I’m against unlimited, secret donations, too — the larger context is critically important. Greg Sargent has a smart post on this.

…Obama and Democrats would close this group down tomorrow if groups on the right agreed to do the same. This is not a matter of spin or argument. It’s a matter of simple factual reality that Obama and Democrats have long supported, and continue to support, legislation that would outlaw such non-disclosure — even for themselves. Dems believe the rules that allow undisclosed spending are wrong, and support changing those rules — even for themselves. By contrast, Republicans want to keep the rules as they are, because they believe undisclosed spending is a right that should be protected.

The point is that a change in the rules is not currently possible in the real world. That leaves Dems with two choices. They could ask their donors to play by different rules than GOP donors are playing by…. The alternative for Dems is that they play within the rules just as Republicans are, while continuing to advocate for a change in those rules.

Exactly. Conservatives on the Supreme Court created a new landscape. Democrats would prefer this legal environment didn’t exist, but it’s not up to them. To be sure, Dems could stick to principle, refuse to play by the new rules, and make defeat far more likely, or they could level the playing field and (to mix metaphors) fight fire with fire.

I’m inclined to think the latter is the smarter move. National campaigns in which Republicans, the Koch brothers, and Karl Rove are held to one standard, while Democrats voluntarily abide by a more difficult standard is a recipe for failure.

The national discourse doesn’t benefit from these new rules. But the discourse also suffers when only one side follows the rules to get its message out to voters. There’s no need for a double standard, and it seems Priorities USA will ensure there isn’t one.

Paul Begala, who is also helping lead this effort, had an extremely amusing response to a question from Greg on this, noting, among other things, “We strongly support reform. We support new laws to require transparency of all donations. We support repealing the wrongheaded Citizens United ruling. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the laws you have, not the laws you wish you had. Mr. Rove, the billionaire Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the American Action Network, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and other right-wing groups are projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to advance an extreme agenda which would hammer the middle class. We will not let their attacks go unanswered.”