If you wish to run for president in 2012, you must accomplish several tasks designed to magnify your influence before your formal announcement.
And you must be careful about it. You don’t want the public to know. That’s because while you’re doing these often ethically spurious but entirely legal acts, you want the public to believe your political intentions are altruistic. You would be president, you will publicly and loudly proclaim, because you wish to do the work of the American people.
Let’s use former Massachusetts governor and Olympics savior Mitt Romney as an example. Why Mitt? Because he so badly wants to be president of these Disunited States, and because he’s ahead of others in doing the tasks.
Task one is obvious: Raise money. Gobs of it. But direct public contributions to candidates regulated by the Federal Election Commission will not produce enough money to really make a run for the presidency. About two-thirds of the $1.64 billion raised by House and Senate candidates for the 2010 midterms came from individuals, the rest from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s lots of money, but expect serious presidential candidates in 2012 to each raise a billion dollars — or more. After all, President Obama raised $745 million in 2008.
So where will the money come from?
Task one is to maximize donations from individuals who can cough up the FEC max of $2,400 given directly to candidates’ campaigns. That task gets turned over, basically, to a bunch of interns who know how to build money-raising websites. They’ll raise a half billion dollars.
Task two is building a complex political machine capable of avoiding limits on donations. And Romney’s already done it. He field-tested his machine in 2006. He has quietly built “a network of state political action committees he has set up that enable him to avoid federal campaign finance limits [emphasis added].” That’s what successful businessmen and women like Romney do — find loopholes in regulations to gain advantage. Here, according to Politico, is how his machine works:
To keep his presence high and key campaign staff on the payroll after the 2008 presidential campaign, Romney re-named his Commonwealth PAC, a federal political action committee, and its five, corresponding state-based committees the Free and Strong America PACs.
The state committees are located mostly in early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Alabama — and each operates under different contribution rules established by local statute. That means Romney can collect corporate checks in Alabama, unlimited donations from individual backers in Iowa and regulated donations in South Carolina and New Hampshire.
The arrangement provides Romney’s most loyal and generous backers with multiple opportunities to grease the gears of his political machine.
Task three follows: Find folks with the deepest of all pockets. Romney’s done that. He invited his top bundlers to his vacation home (in New Hampshire, of course) this summer. See, he’s competing with other potential GOP presidential candidates for wealthy donors. Romney’s not alone in dealing quietly outside campaign finance regulations. From The Times:
Mr. Romney has been by far the most assertive, according to interviews with a half-dozen top Republican fund-raisers, already pushing for commitments from major donors should he formally decide to run. … Mr. Romney has already lined up an array of prominent supporters, including a billionaire, David Koch, who has donated heavily to conservative causes over the years, and Robert Wood Johnson IV, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets and one of the party’s most coveted fund-raisers.
The money’s big: Politico reports that “analysis of information from [Romney's] federal Free and Strong America PAC, the combined $486,700 raised by the state committees from Jan. 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, came from just 24 individuals.”
Romney has pulled in donations of more than $100,000 to his state PACs. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took in $60,000 in late September from Texas home builder Bob J. Perry, one of the Republican Party’s largest donors. According to The Times‘ Michael Luo, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
has banked several $25,000 contributions in recent months from Mississippi corporations, like Anderson Companies, a construction firm, and Ergon, which is involved in petroleum products, through Haley’s Leadership PAC, a committee he set up in Georgia, where there are few campaign finance restrictions. [emphasis added]
All the others are still deeply into task two, building the apparatus: Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But Romney’s really on the money roll as his machine pulls in the big checks:
Richard Marriott, the hotel executive, and his wife, Donna, have together given Mr. Romney $225,000 this year mainly through the state-based affiliates of his federal PAC, Free and Strong America, in Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Other major Romney contributors include Edward Conard, a former executive with Mr. Romney at Bain Capital, who donated $100,000, and Hushang Ansary, a Texas oil-and-gas investor and former Iran finance minister, who contributed $95,000.
According to Politico, Romney’s PACs — federal and state — have combined to raise more than $8.6 million since 2009.
Romney’s on to task four: building alliances that make others beholden to him. In short, give some of the money raised in task three to others who need it to make credible runs for Congress and important state races (like getting GOP governors into statehouses).
An example: Romney, through his PAC, gave Nikki Haley, running for South Carolina governor, $42,000. (She won. She’ll remember — or be reminded of — Romney’s help.) But aren’t PACs limited by FEC regulations? Yeah, but South Carolina’s ethics board approved the gift:
Political action committees are typically capped at giving $3,500 per cycle, but lawyers for Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC discovered that multiple PACs sharing the same leadership and office space are able to contribute $3,500 each per cycle in South Carolina, according to a Romney source. With one federal PAC and five statewide PACs each maxing out at $3,500 for Haley in both the GOP primary and general elections, Romney has contributed a total of $42,000.
Politicians have been giving money to other politicians for eons, all to cement alliances. Rep. John Boehner, who will be the next speaker of the House, is an expert. But he only doled out political money $5,000 at a time. With the millions these presidential candidates can raise through their shadowy state PACs, they can afford to be more generous.
Then there’s the delicate task five — establishing plausible deniability of any political connection or coordination with a 501(c)(4) organization. These are the groups that can run issue ads but cannot overtly support a particular candidate. And these groups can accept unlimited, anonymous donations. This is where the really big money pushed the GOP into a takeover of the House during the midterm elections. As I wrote last month:
Come Nov. 3, big, big political money will have won, because the law of the land allows so much of it to be hidden from the public. Granting anonymity to that much money is just plain wrong. But I can guarantee a Congress willing to change that will not be elected in November.
This kind of money parlayed into politics by the superrich will play an enormous role in the 2012 presidential race, and Romney and his fellow candidates know it. But the law says no coordination can exist between a candidate’s campaign and a 501(c)(4) organization.
Right. Sure. Absolutely. All of these candidates, such as Romney, who have already demonstrated a willingness to circumvent federal election law, will swear on a stack of bundled checks totaling millions that neither they nor members of their campaign staffs have any connection to a 501(c)(4). “We’re honest,” they’ll say. “We only wish to take on the business of the American people.”
That’s a fairy tale. If any of these candidates stands up in front of an audience and proclaims himself or herself free of any tie to a special interest, stand up and yell, “Bullshit.”
Then ask that candidate to prove his or her commitment to the business of the American people by backing legislation that would remove the stranglehold superrich money has on politics.
Expect either no answer, a waffling answer, or an outright lie. Again.