The Obama Super PAC Ad Makes a Mockery of Campaign-Finance Laws

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Two similar ads spotlighting Bain Capital demonstrate the inefficacy of laws prohibiting super PAC-candidate coordination.

Well, here's a bit of fortuitous timing. Just Monday, the Obama campaign released a new ad attacking Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital. The case study for the two-minute spot -- which will run in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Iowa -- is GST Steel, a factory in Kansas City.

Today, Priorities USA released the ad above, also attacking Romney's time at Bain Capital. It uses as its case study GST Steel, and it's airing in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Priorities USA is a pro-Obama super PAC run by Bill Burton, who was previously a deputy White House press secretary and a member of Obama's 2008 campaign team.

Now, super PACs are allowed to spend in support of one another, but they're legally prohibited from coordinating strategy with formal campaigns. It's entirely plausible that Priorities USA didn't have inside info about the campaign's coming ad. Maybe they were already preparing an attack; after all, GST has been used in attacks against Romney in past campaigns, so it's not as if an opposition researcher had to delve deep into history to find the plant. And the steelworker featured in the Priorities version doesn't appear in the Obama campaign version.

But that's the point. Even when there aren't backchannel conversations going on, the super PAC and the campaign are able to push a nearly identical message at basically the same time anyway. Time and again during the race, a campaign's strategy has neatly dovetailed with what a legally independent super PAC was doing, and many candidates' super PACs are run by former aides. It's telling that Mike Allen's Playbook, a handy guide to Washington conventional wisdom, winked at the timing Tuesday morning, calling it a "darn coincidence." It's not really funny, though. When political operatives can follow the letter of the law but so publicly flout the spirit, what's the point of having the rules?

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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