527, 501(c)(4), Whatever

One of the issues the IRS “scandal” over 501(c)(4) scrutiny is already running into head-on is massive confusion about the relationship between these entities, which to an extent unimaginable just a few years ago are engaged in heavy electoral campaign activities, and the so-called 527 “Super-PAC” organizations. The former don’t have to disclose donor identities, but cannot “primarily” be involved in “political activity,” and also can’t explictly promote candidacies. The latter do have to disclose donors, but have no limits on election activities and can also explicitly promote or oppose candidates so long as they don’t “coordinate” efforts with an actual campaign.

The confusion is nicely illustrated by a new ad running right now on the “scandal” that is competing for oxygen with the IRS issue, Benghazi!. Here’s John Avlon’s report at the Daily Beast:

Less than five months after Barack Obama began his second term, the 2016 presidential campaign kicked off this weekend with a Benghazi-themed attack ad that takes direct aim at Hillary Clinton.

The 90-second web ad, called “Benghazi”, was issued by the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads, which spent more than $21 million in the last election cycle. It is the freshest evidence that hyperpartisan super-PAC slush funds are now a core part of the permanent campaign.

This American Crossroads ad matters because of its unsubtle purpose: a preemptive strike against a potential Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. Remember that through 2008, Clinton was widely considered the most polarizing figure in American politics. The days of Hillary as Republicans’ favorite member of the Obama cabinet are over. This dynamic was unlikely to the point of absurdity—a case of political amnesia brought on by a combination of her voting record in the Senate and the ’08 campaign-era conviction that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Now it seems this ad is the product of the American Crossroads 527, though there is nothing about it that would prohibit its distribution by the American Crossroads GPS 501(c)(4), assuming it didn’t exceed that group’s budget for “political activity,” an exceptionally hazy concept to begin with. But it’s hard to distinguish the two groups: Steven J. Law heads both of them, and both were established by Karl Rove. It’s a token of the confusion, BTW, that Avlon seems shocked that American Crossroads spent “$21 million” in the last election cycle. He was actually looking at the 2010 numbers; in 2012, American Crossroads (the 527) actually spent $104 million, while Crossroads GPS spent another $70 million.

Do you think any of these fine distinctions are going to be commonly understood in the brouhaha over the “IRS scandal?” Fat chance of that. Most rank-and-file Republicans are going to be given the impression that we are talking about IRS auditors hassling and intimidating them. It could not be further from the truth, but I doubt seriously the GOP and the conservative movement–including such “innocent parties” as American Crossroads and American Crossroads GPS–are going to be interested in conducting a national seminar on tax and campaign finance laws.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.