Stephen Colbert, Super PACs and the US Presidential election
January 19, 2012
If you haven’t heard, Stephen Colbert, the “right-wing” counterpart to Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, recently announced that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee. He had earlier established a “Super PAC“, Making A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and he has handed over control of the Super PAC to Stewart to comply with laws forbidding collaboration between Super PACs and presidential committees.
Shortly after handing over control of the Super PAC to Stewart, it started to run ads against Mitt Romney, and calling for people to vote for Herman Cain.
There is now an interesting debate going on over at Politico’s Arena about whether Colbert’s activities are healthy or toxic to the American political process.
Here are some of the interesting quotes from the discussion:
Stephen Colbert might be funny, but his exploratory campaign is no joke. The point he’s been assiduously making on “The Colbert Report” is a smart bomb wrapped inside of an absurd conundrum. Simply put, there is no greater force for campaign finance these days than Colbert. By following the tortured laws and starting his own super PAC, Colbert has unleashed a prank that could embarrass the body politic into real change.
… But Colbert was twirling a lot of plates way up in the air when he discussed the lack of control he had over ads run by the super PAC he created called “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” Based on legal advice from a former FEC chairman who’s become a frequent guest on his late-night show, Colbert recently turned over control of the PAC to “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart. No sooner did they stage a ceremonial transfer of control than the PAC was on the air in South Carolina with an ad asking that if Mitt Romney believed corporations were people, and Bain Capital shut down some corporations, then did that make Romney a serial killer?
When Stephanopoulos pressed Colbert on the claim, the comedian exposed the self-serving loophole. “I don’t want any untrue ads on the air that could in any way be traced to me,” said Colbert, but not before trotting out the old nag, “I don’t know if Mitt Romney is a serial killer. That’s a question he’s going to have to answer.”
To ask people to vote for someone who is not even a candidate could hurt either party. The matter of running this country, keeping us safe, working to create jobs, healthcare, etc. is no laughing matter. Colbert should use his celebrity for good, encouraging people to vote. In short, he’s a jokester and should stick with that, he’s good at it. Running the country? I’m going to leave that up to our president, and whoever America decides should have the job for the next four years.
Considering there are people in countries like Afghanistan that risk their lives to vote, we should consider it both a privilege and an obligation; something men and women for years have fought and given our lives for we to have the freedom to do. Shame on Colbert; he might be funny, but I’m not laughing.
Stephen Colbert may be the only candidate willing to be honest about why he and his fellow Republicans are running for president: to protect corporations, not people. And that agenda is no joke.
The corrosive nature of corporate donations to Super PACs and presidential campaigns, exacerbated by the Citizens United case, is far more dangerous to the democratic process.
In my view, Colbert is doing democracy a service, demonstrating the corrupted nature of the US political system.
The Christian Science Monitor explains the paper-thin line between coordination (illegal) and talking via the media (legal):
The point they’re making is that the line here is tissue-thin. The law says candidates cannot “coordinate” with super PACs. That means they cannot request, assent to, or suggest any super PAC activities.
But there is a loophole, or, as Colbert called it, a “loop-chasm.” A candidate can talk to his associated super PAC via the media. And the super PAC can listen, like everybody else.
“I can’t tell you [what to do]. But I can tell everyone through television,” said Colbert on Stewart’sComedy Central Show. “And if you happen to be watching, I can’t prevent that.”
Stewart then played a clip of Newt Gingrich calling on his super PAC to scrub ads attacking Mitt Romney for possible inaccuracies.
Stewart and Colbert then talked to elections lawyer Trevor Potter – who is the attorney for both Colbert’s exploratory committee and the super PAC – through the same phone. Stewart said he’d bought air time in South Carolina, and so on, and Colbert just said he couldn’t coordinate, but smiled or frowned, depending on which city the ad time was in. Columbia, no. Charleston, yes!
Is this all legal, or are these comedians pushing the legal envelope and in fact risking jail time?
Nope, amazing as it sounds, they’re doing everything right. Election law expert Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, on his blog linked to clips from the show, and posted but one additional word: “hilarious.”