Follow The Money

Obama Finds Staying On Campaign-Finance High Road Not So Easy

President at a Chicago fundraiser in August 2011. i i

President at a Chicago fundraiser in August 2011. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carolyn Kaster/AP
President at a Chicago fundraiser in August 2011.

President at a Chicago fundraiser in August 2011.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

It hasn't been a good 12 hours for President Obama when it comes to campaign finances.

Within that period, the New York Times reported that the president's campaign was returning more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from family members of a Mexican casino kingpin who is also a fugitive from Iowa justice.

Then, the Obama re-election campaign announced that the president, who has decried the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the superPACs it spawned, had decided that if he couldn't beat the world of superPACs he would join it.

The campaign was urging its supporters to fund the Priorities USA Action superPAC so that Obama's supporters would presumably be able to counter an expected barrage of negative Republican political ads funded by GOP superPACs with their own.

Both stories are likely to put a few dings in the holier-than-thou position Obama has taken on campaign-finance issues.

The story of the political contributions collected by family members of Juan Jose Rojas Cardona, also known as Pepe, a major player in the Mexican casino industry, is embarrassing because, if nothing else, it raises the question — why wasn't more done to vet the donors?

As the NYT relates Cardona's brothers were major fundraisers and bundlers for Obama. There's evidence that Pepe Cardona's family may have had reasons to seek some political influence since they were seeking a pardon for their brother from Iowa's governor on a fraud conviction.

Of course, a president can't pardon someone convicted of a state crime. Thus it might have made more sense, if that was even a partial goal of the contributions, to funnel the money into Iowa political campaigns. The NYT story doesn't mention that.

Meanwhile, a member of the extended family who the NYT interviewed said the Cardona brothers were merely supporting the president, no more, no less.

Still, the story is an example of the ever-present dangers created by the need to raise the vast sums need to wage modern political campaigns, especially for the president. So much money has to be raised from so many sources, it's a challenge for campaigns to adequately vet each donor, even when there are red flags, as seems to be the case with the Cardonas.

The NYT reported:

Last fall, Carlos Cardona and another brother in Chicago, Alberto Rojas Cardona, began raising money for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Cardona brothers, who have no prior history of political giving, appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the world of Democratic fund-raising, Democratic activists said. (italics added.)

Big money from political donors who suddenly appear on the scene is definitely a red flag. It doesn't mean there's anything necessarily amiss but it does suggest the need for more than the usual scrutiny.

The bigger story, however, is about the president unleashing the superPAC dogs of political war.

For Obama, it takes away the ability to legitimately claim the moral high ground if he has superPAC allies doing his dirty work by going negative after his Republican opponent while his official campaign maintains a sunny message.

But that appears to be the direction the president is headed in. In his Today show interview with Lauer, he telegraphed his intention to keep his hands clean.

Asked by Lauer if he would meet with the eventual Republican nominee and agree to conduct a civil, positive campaign, Obama made no such commitment. Instead he said: You know, I think that you'll be able to see how we conduct ourselves in the campaign. I think it'll be consistent with how I conducted myself in 2008 and hopefully how I've conducted myself as president of the United States.

OBAMA: One of the worries we have, obviously, in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called superPACs, these independent expenditures that are going to be out there, there's going to be just a lot of money floating around. And I guarantee you a bunch of that's going to be negative.

But it's not going to enough just to say the other guy is a bum. You've got to explain to the American people what your plan is to make sure that they're good jobs at good wages and that this economy is growing over the long term. And whoever wins that argument I think is going to be the next president.

So the president guaranteed that a lot of the superPAC efforts would be negative. He just failed to mention to Lauer that he was also guaranteeing that much of those efforts would be on his behalf and that his campaign would be encouraging his supporters to participate in a big way.

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