Super PACS Alter Nation's Campaign Landscape

Ted Koppel, special correspondent for NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams
Cleta Mitchell, campaign finance attorney

The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizen's United ruling loosened campaign finance restrictions, enabling corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. As a result, super PACs — political action committees — can solicit large corporate contributions and produce a plethora of attack ad campaigns.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the past, changes in campaign finance laws yielded slightly different presidential elections every four years, but 2012 is the first since the Supreme Court decision transformed the playing field.

Political donations are now considered free speech. Donations to candidates are still limited, but corporations and unions can give as much as they like to so-called super PACs, which unleashed blizzards of attack ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and now in South Carolina.

Critics worry that we've crossed a threshold into an ever nastier political climate. Proponents argue that more ads allow voters to make more informed choices. If you've donated to a super PAC, call and tell us why. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Thomas Pickering joins us on the Opinion Page to argue the case for diplomacy with Iran, but first Ted Koppel joins us from our bureau in New York. He's a commentator for NPR News and a special correspondent for MSNBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams," which airs his piece on super PACs tonight. And Ted, welcome back.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Actually, it's not MSNBC, it's plain old NBC.

CONAN: I was just looking at that. Thanks very much for the correction.

KOPPEL: Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And is it just the number of ads that's different this year?

KOPPEL: Well, certainly volume is huge, but you just heard at the top of the news Governor Huntsman bemoaning the fact that things have gotten so nasty and that they're going to get even nastier. I must tell you if you think things are bad now, just wait until the general election. Wait until the Democrats and the Republicans start unleashing these quite literally hundreds of millions of dollars that will be put to work in large measure putting out negative ads.

CONAN: And I have to say, Ted, this is not the first time we've seen negative advertising. As the old expression goes, politics ain't beanbag, negative ads are part of the game.

KOPPEL: Negative ads are part of the game, but I think what you have these days is if, in the old days you could say that candidates were responsible, remember how a candidate would say at the end of each ad I'm Ted Koppel and I'm responsible for this message, you're not hearing that anymore because the fact of the matter is the campaigns - while the campaigns are still putting out ads, and you'll still hear a candidate say that, in South Carolina now, for example, at a rate exceeding two to one, it is the super PACs that are putting out these messages.

And if in the old days you could say that candidates bore some responsibility, now we live in an era of irresponsibility because not only are the candidates not responsible, they can take the position that they are not permitted under the law to communicate directly with the super PACs that are supporting them.

And so they can stand back and watch as the super PACs quite literally mug the other candidate, and it's going to lead - it's going to reach a level of nastiness, Neal, that I think we haven't seen in many, many years.

CONAN: Just a clarification, at the top of the show we played a clip of tape of Mitt Romney on MSNBC - that one was correct - but he was responding to Newt Gingrich's protest: Mr. Romney, stop these ads, take them off the air, it's just negative advertising. He could say, with I guess plausible deniability, I have no control over this super PAC.

KOPPEL: He could, and the irony is that of course now Newt Romney several days ago got a donation...

CONAN: Newt Gingrich.

KOPPEL: Newt Gingrich, I'm sorry - Newt Romney is - that's not likely to happen. Newt Gingrich got a donation of $5 million from a man by the name of Sheldon Adelson, who is a casino owner in Las Vegas and apparently has enough money that giving $5 million is no big deal to him.

But with that $5 million, Gingrich was able to start striking back in South Carolina. And Gingrich wasn't, his super PAC was.

CONAN: His super PAC, as you're about to clarify that.

KOPPEL: Red, White and Blue. Yes, Red, White and Blue struck back by purchasing a documentary that had been done, interestingly enough, by a filmmaker on spec. He made the video in anticipation of selling it to some political adversary to Mitt Romney. And in fact, it was Newt Gingrich's super PAC that purchased it and is now playing segments of it.

And newspaper reporters who have specialized in this kind of thing have analyzed it. The Washington Post gave it a four Pinocchio, which is their highest, or lowest depending on how you choose to look at it, rating for honesty. And Newt Gingrich came out and said look, I think this is terrible, and I think they ought to correct all the errors, and if they can't correct all the errors, they ought to take it off the air.

As best I can determine, the ads are still on the air because the super PACs are taking the position that Newt Romney can't communicate with us directly, and we're not listening to what he says on TV.

CONAN: You did it again, Ted: Newt Gingrich.

KOPPEL: Newt Gingrich.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Easily done. There is something else to point out: Yes, this is a new world, super PACs are new, 527s it was not too long ago and swift-boating, I think, well, what's the difference between what we're seeing and those kinds of ads that, you'll forgive me, did a lot to scupper the campaign of John Kerry?

KOPPEL: Yes, you're absolutely right. Technically speaking, there is a distinction, and that is in those days you had to - they were called issue ads. You had to have an issue. The issue in this case was whether or not Senator Kerry, while he was serving as a commander of a swift boat in Vietnam, had literally participated in the acts of bravery for which he won the Silver Star. That was the issue.

The fact that undermining that story also undermined his campaign was regarded, at least under the law, as being a technicality. A, these days you can go after the other candidate, and you can do it directly; B, it's a question of volume.

I spoke to a man who gave a little bit more than a million dollars to Senator Santorum's super PAC, and again forgive me if I say Senator Santorum's super PAC, he doesn't own it, he doesn't control it, but it is a super PAC that supports him.

So this man, Mr. Weiss(ph), gave over a million dollars, and when I asked him about it, he said well, there's, you know, there's a great convenience factor. In the old days, he said, what we used to do, what we used to have to do, is I'd invite seven or eight people and ask each of them to invite seven or eight people, and each of them would then come, we'd have a draw, he said, like Dick Cheney, and we'd serve whiskey and peanuts, and each person could donate only $2,500.

Now that's an interesting point, he said. So it wasn't very easy to raise huge sums of money. He, independently now, has been able to give over a million dollars. What's the point? Theoretically, limiting the donation of each individual to $2,500 during the primaries and $2,500 during a general election was supposed to limit corruption in politics.

If indeed - and that's still the case. You can't give more than $2,500 to a candidate. But you can now give a million, five million, 10 million. It is anticipated that the Romney super PAC will have about $300 to $350 million in play before this election is over. That's something of a whole new dimension.

CONAN: They say the Obama super PAC will have a billion. The president denies it, but we'll be up in those large numbers in any case. But we want to get some...

KOPPEL: It's actually Republicans who are saying that. I haven't heard any Democrats saying that the president's going to have a super PAC, but believe me, he'll have hundreds of millions of dollars at the disposal of those super PACs, and the super PACs almost by definition tend to go negative.

CONAN: We want to hear from you about how these super PACs are changing the political climate, if they are, and we'd like to hear especially from those of you who have made a contribution to one, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Nicole(ph), an Nicole's on the line with us from San Antonio.

NICOLE: Hi, I teach advertising in one of my classes, and I take issue with an idea presented at the top of the show, which was that more advertising leads to a more informed electorate, potentially. I think that specifically the reason I have not donated to a super PAC, and I am a political - I do contribute, but not to super PACs because I don't feel like my money is going to go to making the audience more informed, I feel like it's going to go to more misinformation and propaganda and a less informed electorate.

CONAN: Well, for example, in South Carolina, the super PAC aligned with Newt Gingrich is running ads that try to inform the voters of South Carolina about Mr. Romney's past as an executive with Bain, a venture capital firm, and whether - it portrays that very negatively, but nevertheless, maybe a lot of voters didn't know that.

NICOLE: Sure, and I think that there is definitely a place for advertising to exist. I just don't think that more advertising always means more information. Sometimes it just means more screaming.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, you've probably seen a lot of these ads.

KOPPEL: Yeah, and in fact, I raised the issue, we went to an advertising agency here in New York and raised the issue with the lady who was the CEO of that ad, and the question that we put to her was this: Why is it that products don't engage in negative advertising? Why is it that products don't go after each other with the same vehemence that politicians do?

And she had an interesting response. Number one, she said, the products, you know, are around for a very long time, and therefore what you try to do is you try to build up good feelings in the public about the product, and you don't want to get engaged in the sort of negative mudslinging.

Alternatively, she pointed out that politics tend to be, these elections tend to be short-term operations, just for a few months, and the object is to get to the White House. Secondly, she said, the FTC, that is the Federal Trade Commission, is far more demanding that you tell the truth in your ads for a loaf of bread than the Federal Election Commission is with regard to the ads because political advertising is covered under the First Amendment, therefore you can say almost anything you want in these super PAC ads.

And I totally agree with the caller that in point of fact, we're not getting information, we're getting bile and vitriol.

CONAN: Nicole, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

NICOLE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel about the rise of super PACs. If you've donated to one, call and tell us why, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. When we return, we'll speak with Cleta Mitchell, the campaign finance lawyer who represents Republican candidates and parties. Her clients include one of the super PACs that supports Texas Governor Rick Perry. So we'll hear the other side of the argument. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Last week, Senator John McCain blasted the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, calling it the worst decision in last 50 years and blamed it for the ad wars we're seeing now. That Supreme Court decision struck down large portions of the McCain-Feingold law of 2002, which established contribution limits, now out the window for corporations and unions who want to donate to super PACs.

If you've made a donation to a super PAC, we'd like to know why. We'd also like to hear from those of you to think about - to ask us about how super PACs are changing the political climate, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. NPR commentator Ted Koppel is with us today, and joining us now is Cleta Mitchell, a longtime campaign finance attorney. She worked on a team opposing the McCain-Feingold law.

And her current clients include the Make Us Great Again super PAC, which is aligned with Texas Governor Rick Perry. And Cleta Mitchell joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in on the holiday.

CLETA MITCHELL: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And so is this entirely negative, terrible things, or is this free speech?

MITCHELL: Well, it is free speech, and the Supreme Court, that's not new. The Supreme Court said in January of 1976, in the Buckley vs. Valeo decision, that the right of citizens to make independent expenditures and for campaigns to spend money is protected under the First Amendment, that money is speech.

CONAN: Well, they considerably expanded it in Citizens United.

MITCHELL: Well, that's actually not true. I mean, what happened was that there had been intervening decisions, one in 1979, in which the Supreme Court, I think, had gotten it wrong in a decision saying that a corporation could not - could be precluded under state law from making independent expenditures.

And from that came several other decisions, including the decision in the Supreme Court case in which the Supreme Court upheld McCain-Feingold, in the McConnell decision, relying on that 1979 case. And essentially what happened was that with a case in 2004 involving the Wisconsin right-to-life organization, the Supreme Court said, well, actually as applied - the facts applied to this case, you know, gee, it is unconstitutional to say that this citizens group can't make independent expenditures and electionary communications just before an election.

And then when Citizens United came along a couple years later, the Supreme Court said, now, wait a minute, we need to go back and look at our - that 1979 decision. And what the Supreme Court said was that that was the anomaly, and it basically went back to the decision in 1976.

So I mean, I listen to all of this debate and argument. I listened to Ted Koppel, who frankly is a household word, name - his name is a household word because, because he has spent his career being able to say what he wants on - in a system where a corporation, ABC News and now NBC, is able to spend unlimited amounts promoting Ted Koppel's ideas.

This show we're on right now, NPR is owned and operated by a corporation, and what the Supreme Court said was that for Congress to say that media corporations should be able to spend unlimited amounts saying whatever they want or their hosts and their commentators can say whatever they want, but other corporations are not allowed to make similar kinds of expenditures is tantamount to Congress granting a speech license, which the First Amendment doesn't allow.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, free speech?

KOPPEL: Free speech indeed. I know that Ms. Mitchell is aware of the fact that it's not quite as simple as she portrays it. We are obliged, at least I'm obliged, as a journalist, and have tried to abide by that over the years, to include something that is not required under the Citizens United ruling, and that is accuracy.

I am responsible for what I say on the air. If for some reason I say something that is inaccurate, A) I can be sued, and B) I'd probably lose my job. And I must tell you that those who worked for me at ABC and at "Nightline" over the years, they might get one pass, they wouldn't get two.

The fact of the matter is that there is a huge difference between journalism, at least as it used to be practiced in this country, and this ruling, and I think Ms. Mitchell knows it.

MITCHELL: Well, let me just - look, I do this for a living. I deal in these nuances and these regulations all the time, all day every day, and let me just tell you that candidate speech is protected from any kind of interference in its content. But all of these super PACs, any independent organization other than a candidate ad, any communication is subject to the exact same standards of advertising as for an aspirin commercial.

KOPPEL: Who's going to sue them?

MITCHELL: Well, the fact...

KOPPEL: If they are called, if one of these super PACs is called before the Federal Elections Commission, there will be a hearing if you can get the six-person body, which usually splits three-three, as you know, if they can get this six-person body to actually agree to have a hearing, the worst thing that's going to happen to anyone, the worst thing that has happened over the past few years, is a fine.

And the fine might be as much as, the highest it's been in recent years, has been $100,000.

MITCHELL: That's not true. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, your commitment to accuracy is not true. The Media Fund paid a $580,000 fine.

CONAN: You can say he's inaccurate, not his commitment to accuracy, but go ahead.

KOPPEL: If you will at least allow me to quote my source, it was one of the commissioners of the FEC whom you will see on NBC tonight at 10:00, making precisely that statement, that the largest fine that has been collected by the FEC in recent years has been $100,000.

MITCHELL: Well, that's not true.

KOPPEL: And when you are - and when you are in fact collecting tens of millions of dollars, that's considered to be the price of doing business.

CONAN: We'll accept that we need to disagree on this point...

MITCHELL: Well, you know, the fact is that the Media Fund, for example, in 2004 raised and spent $60 million; 90 percent of that was from labor unions and corporations and donors over $5,000. They were supporting John Kerry, and they paid a fine of $580,000. Do I think that they calculated and said, yes, that's just a cost of doing business? Yes.

But let me go back to this, because I think it's important that you do have your facts correct, and they are not correct. For instance, the TV stations are responsible for monitoring and taking down inaccurate ads by organizations such as super PACs, but I've spent a fair amount of time the last several years trying to get inaccurate ads taken off the air and demonstrating, with documentation, inaccuracies, because the law is that the station - a broadcast licensee has a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of such advertising.

Since the economy tanked, you can't get an ad off the air, because they need the money. But you would - those ads, the ad makers, those who pay for the ads and the station are all - they could be sued for libel. But the FEC doesn't monitor this. This is not an FEC issue. It is an FCC issue.

KOPPEL: And the FCC, if anything, is an even weaker organization than the FEC. But let's...

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation here. This is TALK OF THE NATION, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's go next to Cathy(ph), Cathy with us from St. Clair Shores in Michigan.

CATHY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CATHY: Yesterday I made my second donation to Stephen Colbert's super PAC.

CONAN: OK.

CATHY: And I'd appreciate your comments about Mr. Colbert's use of the super PAC to educate the public.

CONAN: That is another technique. This is, of course, the faux newscaster from the Comedy Central channel who is running a mock campaign, I guess, or semi-mock campaign in South Carolina and using that campaign as an educational tool. Ted, have you seen his contributions here?

KOPPEL: I've not only seen them, I have an interview that runs separately on "Rock Center" tonight with Stephen on the subject. And I must give him a shout-out at this particular point because I think he has done more through his satire of underscoring and educating the American public on the ludicrous nature of these super PACs.

I mean, as you probably know, or as many of your listeners have probably heard, he has - he has collected hundreds - I mean, I don't know how many thousands of donations, and he won't tell me how much money he has collected because, as he correctly points out, he doesn't have to yet, but he now has handed over control of his super PAC to his friend Jon Stewart so that he can run for president of South Carolina, at least he has an exploratory commission in that direction.

But I think Colbert's mockery of what can be done - and he actually applied for and got permission to form his own super PAC, has been receiving donations for that super PAC, has done ads on the air, he did one ad in fact making fun of Ms. Mitchell's client, Governor Perry, in which he asked voters, I guess in Iowa, to vote for, what, Governor Perry with an A? There's nothing that anybody could do about it.

CONAN: And by the way, we have checked, and there was a $580,000 fine imposed against the Media Fund in the Kerry campaign. So that is accurate. And so it's a lot more than $100,000, Ted.

KOPPEL: Well, I stand corrected then, but you will still see the same commissioner making that statement tonight.

CONAN: As - Cleta Mitchell, the other claim, that these groups are independent, it's clear when you nominate the - when the person who ran, for example, Governor Romney's campaign four years ago, is the head of a super PAC, does any - there is no outright coordination. But there's no - it's clear to everybody that this super PAC is working for Mitt Romney.

MITCHELL: Well, that's what they - I'm sure that's what they say in their statement of organization filed with the FEC. You have to say what the purpose of any political committee is when you form it. And that's, I'm sure, exactly what they say, that they're supporting the presidential nomination of Mitt Romney.

CONAN: And wink, wink, nod, nod.

MITCHELL: Well, not wink, wink, nod, nod.

CONAN: No. Well, except that these groups run negative ads against the other side, the guy's opponents.

MITCHELL: Or they run positive ads in support of their candidate.

CONAN: For the most part, they have thus been - thus far been negative ads overwhelmingly. And the campaign is, therefore, able to run commercials, ads, saying - showing the candidate kissing baby and shaking hands.

MITCHELL: Well, I don't know that that's true, and I think it would be important that that'd be analyzed. And look, I'll tell you who taught us how to do all of this, was George Soros and Ellen Malcolm and the people in 2004 who went out and formed America Coming Together and the Media Fund and got $20 million from George Soros for Americans Coming Together. They raised and spent $200 million in 2004, all independent of the Kerry campaign. The Media Fund raised and spent $60 million. You had unions giving money, which was illegal we thought at that time. And so I didn't hear all of this outrage about that. I didn't hear the liberal media and Ted Koppel. I looked this morning, Mr. Koppel, and I didn't see any outrage on your part when George Soros called George Bush a Nazi.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, we - as you said at the outset, Neal, politics ain't bean bag. And the reason people do negative ads is because they work. And, you know, I don't know if this segment is about negative ads. That's a subject. I don't know if it's about super PACs. I don't know if it's about Citizens United, because you're throwing all of this into a stew pot. Basically, what I hear people is saying, what I hear the media is saying is since Citizens United and conservative donors basically having sat out 2006 and 2008, who got back into the ballgame in 2010 and are back in the ballgame in 2012, that now there's outrage. There was no outrage that I saw in 2006 and 2008, or really in 2004.

CONAN: We're talking about super PACs. Our guest - you just heard Cleta Mitchell, who's a campaign finance lawyer. Her clients include one of the super PACs that supports Texas Governor Rick Perry, Make Us Great Again. Also with us, NPR commentator Ted Koppel, whose piece on super PACs airs tonight on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Ted, I heard you wanting to get back in there.

KOPPEL: Well, I just wanted to respond. I think you're being a little too modest in terms of conservative contributions to all of this. Karl Rove, I think, set the tone long ago. And, in fact, Carl Forte(ph), the man who is now one of those heading up the Mitt Romney super PAC, was responsible, among others, for the Willie Horton ad against Dukakis, which as I recall, that campaign was back, what, in the late '80s? So this has been going on for a very, very long time. But if the point you want to raise is that liberal super PACs are going to be just as nasty as conservative super PACs, I concede the point. My objection is to the super PACs, not to what is being said specifically by anyone of the ads.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bob. Bob is with us on the line from Tucson.

BOB: Yeah. I quit giving because of the - mainly because of the negative issue of the nature of the ads that were coming out from these super PACs. And I've also kind of questioned the - if there's any lasting economic value or any lasting contribution to the economy by the super PACs.

CONAN: I think owners of television and radio stations would be very pleased with the economic impact.

KOPPEL: I was going to say, I just talked to the general manager of five radio stations down in South Carolina. They are happy as clams. But one of the incidental things that's happened because of the super PACs is the super PAC money is driving out the campaign money. And ironically - and I would like to hear Ms. Mitchell on this point - every one of the candidates that I have spoken to objects to the super PACs, wishes the super PACs could go away, wishes Citizens United could be reversed, wishes that money could be made available in greater quantities to the campaigns directly so that the candidates could be held responsible for what is put out in their name.

MITCHELL: Well, I agree with that. I mean, the fact of the matter is, I - I wrote a study. I worked on a study in 2001, which was published - we published it in March 2001, called "Who's Buying Campaign Finance Reform?" And it traced the sources of the money, big money, behind the campaign finance reform movement. And the whole point of that was to demonstrate that there was an agenda by those promoting campaign finance reform, and in particular McCain-Feingold. Chapter seven of that study was a look ahead to see what will happen if McCain-Feingold becomes law. And would you like to know the title of that chapter was?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MITCHELL: "OK, Fine, Let George Soros Replace the DNC" - that was the title. Because what has happened is absolutely predictable. When you put the limits on the amount of money that could be given to the party committees and, you know, and when you have aggregate limits which limit your ability, a wealthy person's ability to contribute to as many candidates as possible, you're going to drive the money out. It isn't Citizens United that has caused this. It is the law itself driving money out of the party committees, out of the candidate coffers and to outside groups. You want to change all that? You want to drive it back to candidates and parties? There's an easy way to do that: repeal McCain-Feingold.

CONAN: Cleta Mitchell, thanks very much for your time today. As we mentioned, her clients include one of the super PACs that supports Texas Governor Rick Perry, Make Us Great Again. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Ted Koppel is with us from our bureau in New York, NPR commentator, and also tonight a special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams," and broadcasts a piece tonight on super PACs. Ted, as always, thanks very much.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: When we get back, Ambassador Thomas Pickering joins us to defend what he admits is the slow, elusive diplomatic process with Iran. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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