PACs Americana

A dispatch from the future, where PACs have absorbed America's political parties.

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In retrospect, the transformation began the way most major changes in society begin: without anyone fully realizing what was taking place. Yes, when the Supreme Court handed down its 2010 Citizens United decision — allowing virtually unlimited spending by corporations and individuals to sway elections — there was a fair amount of outrage, mostly from the left. President Barack Obama, then in his first term, spoke out against what he called the corporate takeover of our democracy. But even those who imagined the threat posed by this unfettered influence could not have conceived of what would happen in the years that followed.

It started slowly. The so-called "super PACs" inserted themselves in congressional races. They ran a number of deeply misleading ads across the country. And they even took on roles traditionally associated with the political parties and candidates. But in those early days, the influence of these groups was limited: First, there were a lot of super PACs competing with campaigns and each other for donations and political talent. Second, they were prevented by law from coordinating with candidates.

But that all changed after the election in 2012.

Barack Obama's narrow victory came after a brutal campaign in which the parties spent some $2 billion, yet were almost matched dollar for dollar by outside groups. The airwaves in swing states were saturated with a level of political vitriol not seen in this country since the days before the Civil War. The lack of coordination between PACs and candidates, however, meant that while people were inundated with ads, the messages were often competing and disjointed, forgotten as soon as the commercial break was over. Voters were angry, confused, frightened, and unmoved.

After the president's reelection, a group of senior Republican operatives, joined by energy executives, Christian conservatives, and wealthy Republican donors, gathered to commiserate over the outcome of the race, and to plot the way forward. But the meeting quickly devolved into chaos. Karl Rove and representatives of Crossroads GPS, his super PAC, nearly came to blows with Mitt Romney's campaign team -- both sides slinging accusations as to who allowed the election to slip through their fingers.

Then a junior staffer, there only to take notes, stood up.

"This is the problem," he said quietly.

Karl Rove, holding a folding chair over the prone and weeping form of Eric Fehrnstrom, paused. "What is it, son? Speak up."

"This," he said, taking a deep breath. "This is the first time any of us have been in the same room together."

Grover Norquist, who took shelter behind a potted plant at the first sign of trouble, stood up and cleared his throat. "But we were barred by law, kid. Sure, the leaders of PACs can talk, but what use is it if we can't coordinate with the campaigns?"

Karl unfolded the chair and sat down, his mind turning. "What if..." Karl squinted, shined an apple on his shirt, and took a bite. "What if there are no campaigns to coordinate with?"

Soon after, Crossroads GPS merged with the remnants of the pro-Romney "Restore our Future" super PAC, and absorbed other smaller organizations as well. With unlimited resources and few disclosure requirements, this new entity, TruePAC, had the funds to hire away talented staffers and operatives from the national party and campaigns. TruePAC enlisted polling firms, direct mail distributors, and other mainstays of traditional political operations. And Rove traveled the country delivering what became known as the PACs Americana Speech to convince bundlers and major donors to eschew traditional campaigns and parties to support his new organization.

His answer to a ban on coordination was to make coordination irrelevant. The PAC would be the campaign. The campaign would be the PAC. Because of the Supreme Court's ruling, campaigns really only existed to meet filing deadlines and conduct paperwork; beyond this, the real difference between an official campaign and a political action committee was a bunch of onerous rules and restrictions.

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Jon Lovett is a writer based in Los Angeles. He previously served for three years as a speechwriter to President Obama in the White House.

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