Super PACs are just a “new bottle containing some very old wine (or, perhaps, whine…)”

Business Insider postulates in a piece posted today that all the hemming and hawing over what will surely be a most negative presidential campaign is probably kind of true. It is also nothing new.

Writer Chris Weigant does a superb job of taking some of the overblown hype out of discussion of what he calls the “coarsening” of our political culture brought about by negative campaign ads in the wake of the Citizen’s United decision.

From now until November, many will fulminate against the “coarsening” of our political culture these ads supposedly usher in, and many will call for Mitt Romneyand Barack Obama (and all the candidates further down the ballot) to renounce negative campaign advertising — to absolutely no avail. The mudslinging will continue apace right up until Election Day, for one very simple reason: such ads work. They are effective. Which means — especially for those living in “battleground” states — that the only way to avoid the onslaught of political negativity will be to stop watching television altogether, until the election is safely over.

While acknowledging that the negativity will exist, Weigant goes on to suggest — with example of past Presidential races aplenty — that we’ve been engaged in this kind of, um, spirited debate since the country began.

The only thing which will be new is the organizational aspects of the mudslinging. Even this won’t be all that radically changed, but instead merely more obvious in the post-Citizens Unitedcountry we now live in. The newly-defined “super PAC” structure is this year’s big change, of course. But this is really just a new bottle containing some very old wine (or, perhaps, “whine”). Presidential candidates will be using these super PACs to do their dirty work in the “air wars” of negative campaigning, as we’ve already seen happen in the Republican primary contest. This, again, is a new twist on a very old theme — the candidate’s supporters and friends have usually been the ones who play the role of attack dog on the campaign trail, because the candidates themselves much prefer to remain “above the fray” of such unseemly behavior. In the 1800s, it was partisan newspaper editors who took on this task, whereas today it is super PACs set up and run by the candidates’ buddies. The only real difference is in the Byzantine IRS regulations which much be adhered to in modern times.

In short, while it’s easy to get swept away in the political method of controlling the narrative by pointing out the rampant negativity and then pointing a finger at the culprit (here at CCP we see a lot of finger pointing at cases like Citizens United and SpeechNow), the truth is both simpler and more complicated than judicial rulings that, in many ways, are just a reaction to previous bad campaign finance legislation (ahem, BCRA). But the new terms aren’t really in danger of corrupting the process. As Weigant notes, how many politicians have ever been thrown in jail for violating election laws?

It is true that there’s a lot of money in campaigns these days. On both sides of the political aisle. And that new deregulation has made much of this cash influx possible for both parties. (Unions are, after all, free to raise unlimited amounts as well. And they surely will.) But new money didn’t create the American response to negativity in campaigns. The answer to why that exists is bigger than super PACs and campaign finance reform.







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