Feingold vs. Super PACs

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a longtime champion of campaign-finance reform, spoke to Netroots Nation last night, and focused heavily on “super” political action committees, which he’s urging Democrats to reject.

“I empathize with the desire to fight fire with fire, but Democrats should just never be in the business of taking unlimited corporate contributions,” Feingold told the audience of liberal activists and bloggers gathered here for the Netroots Nation convention, eliciting cheers. “It’s dancing with the devil, and it’s a game that we will never win.”

The Wisconsin Democrat specifically went after Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC run by two former White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. The group already has been active in the 2012 presidential race, and several other Democratic groups have formed to mimic the massive campaign spending deployed by GOP groups such as American Crossroads in 2010.

“Creating those kind of Super PACs for Democrats is wrong,” Feingold said.

The former senator hammered the points he’s been making for quite a while, insisting that the party is in danger of “losing its soul” if it embraces Super PACs, and giving voters the impression that Dems are “Corporate Lite.”

As much as I respect Feingold’s work on this issue, I continue to believe he’s mistaken.

Priorities USA will include two arms, one will disclose its donors, the other won’t. 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 President Obama won’t accept.

The problem, though, has to do with changes Democrats didn’t want, but are nevertheless stuck with. We’re talking about Democrats and their allies simply playing by the rules — rules they don’t like, rules they wish were different, rules they’d gladly change, but the rules nevertheless.

Feingold is arguing, in effect, that Republicans can go ahead and play by the rules if they want to, but Democrats should impose tougher rules on themselves, on purpose, even if it makes GOP victories more likely, just on principle.

The progressive Wisconsinite is confident that voters will respect and reward the Democratic approach if the party plays by the older, tougher rules. As much as I want to believe that, I’ve seen no evidence that large numbers of Americans are aware of the campaign-finance process at this level. Voters know what they see and hear in advertising; there’s no reason to think they care about or even understand the nuances of political action committee financing.

It was conservatives on the Supreme Court created this new landscape. Democrats would prefer this legal environment didn’t exist, but it’s not up to them. Dems are therefore left with a choice: stick to principle, refuse to play by the new rules, and make defeat far more likely, or 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.

As Paul Begala explained in April, “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.”

For a party to go into a heated campaign cycle with one arm tied behind its back, just on principle, just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Put it this way: how happy do you suppose Rove and the Koch brothers would be if Dems took Feingold’s advice? And what does that tell us about the idea’s merit?