In what is now late-night television history, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report handed over control of his Super PAC to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Overseeing the legalities of such a move, and ensuring its accurate comedic delivery, was Trevor Potter, founding president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, and head of Caplin & Drysdale's political law practice.
Potter was joined Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum by Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary and now senior strategist and co-founder of Priorities USA Action. They spoke with The Atlantic's Editor-in-Chief James Bennet about what the 2012 presidential election revealed about the growing role of Super PACs.
It was the first election in which neither presidential candidate participated in the public fundraising system, and there were lasting consequences, the panelists agreed.
Win or lose, Potter says the Super PACs made a mark in reordering the political financial landscape, as the major donors are now known to the party and party leadership. "They're now the elite of American politics in regards to their ability to get phone calls returned," he said.
In 2008, then-Senator Obama told potential donors to give to him directly and not a Super PAC. As the former White House spokesperson, Burton is on the record speaking against the sort of group that he later started.
"If this goes wrong, what we'll see is every House and Senate candidate has their own Super PAC," Potter says. "There were PACs in this campaign that were created by the candidates' mother or brother." He points to a PAC that was created for a Connecticut race by a non-profit organization in Ohio with little more than a post office box. Under current law, the backers of the PAC won't ever be revealed.
While many Democrats were uneasy with contributing to a Super PAC, Burton said, they recognized the need to compete with the Republicans. "Democrats at their core are against these outside money groups," he said. "Even though we were against Citizens United and support campaign finance reform, as long as special interests had millions of dollars in the election, someone had to protect the president's back."
Potter said the distaste was shared by Republicans. "During the course of campaign I had a chance to talk to a range of Republican donors, and even they said to me, 'This is terrible. I don't want to be able to write unlimited checks, this is not how our president should be selected and we need to talk about this -- after the election.'"