Bailey: Are Super PACs to political parties as asteroids were to dinosaurs?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Todd Bailey, a senior associate at KSE Partners, a government affairs strategic communications firm in Montpelier.

We are all aware of the theory of unintended consequences. Most, if not all of us, have had a direct experience with this concept. Generally speaking, unintended consequences can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Unexpected benefit.
  2. Unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy.
  3. A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended.

Depending on your perspective, each of the three may be happening due to the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. In short, this decision allows unlimited spending during campaigns as long as that spending is done completely outside of an individual candidate’s campaign or in coordination with the political party that he/she is affiliated with.

These types of efforts are known as Independent Expenditure Campaigns (IEC). The IEC is a tool that has been used by groups for years. Right to Life and the League of Conservation Voters are two examples. So while the tactic is not new, the Citizens United decision removed the last few restrictions on spending, especially from corporations, and spawned a new entity know as the Super PAC.

The Super PAC has become famous thanks to Stephen Colbert, who created the Colbert Super PAC, which has run ad campaigns in support of Rick Parry (with an “A”). What else would we expect from our favorite satirical egomaniac?

The Citizens United decision and the new electoral tool it created were lauded by Republicans and their conservative base and generally criticized by President Obama and liberals. But as we head into the 2012 election, the real question is whether or not the Republicans and Democrats wish Super PACs were never allowed in the first place.

In a recent New York Times article “Outside Groups Eclipsing G.O.P. as Hub of Campaigns,” former North Dakota Republican Party chair Gary Emineth said, “Every time we empower independent third-party groups to do what the party is supposed to be doing, it diminishes the value of the brand and what the party represents.”

This fear is not unfounded. Over the past 12 months, it appears that the majority of dollars raised have gone to third party groups independent of either major political party. This has only compounded the challenge for the Republican National Committee as it attempts to deal with the debt that is currently weighing it down.

As these third party groups continue to grow and gain more power along with more wealth, the questions will become more frequent and louder in regard to whether we need political parties at all. Why contribute to a group with contribution limits when an independent group can perform most, if not all, of the electoral work needed for a candidate to be victorious, with none of the challenges of dealing with the diverse set of opinions and power groups that are found within each of the two major parties? Extremely wealthy people tend to like to control how their money is spent, which is precisely what they gain with a Super PAC, and to a certain degree relinquish when they contribute to a party or a candidate directly.

If one or both of the major parties go extinct, the debate will rage on like the debate over what the “33” stands for on a Rolling Rock bottle or how the dinosaurs went extinct. One answer to those questions is correct, but we will never have 100 percent agreement on which one. I still think Gary Larson has the answer to latter.

Don’t discount this possibility too quickly. There is a great deal of precedent for political parties to fail in this country. The Republican and Democratic parties could go the way of the Whigs, the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists and the Anti-Nebraska Party. What did those cornhuskers do?

And if they do disappear, we will all be left to wonder if the unintended consequence of this controversial Supreme Court decision, seen by many as the elimination of a barrier to free speech, wasn’t actually the beginning of the end of two institutions most of us have known our entire lives.

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  • There is a very sad side to the above commentary: if the political parties fall by the wayside (not a bad thing necessarily) it will have occurred because of big money (shout out to the 1%).

    We need the political parties to fall by the wayside by virtue of democratic public decisions.

    Instant Runoff Voting is one such means of doing the latter at the expense of the former.

  • Bob Zeliff

    What a fascinating insight to ponder!


    A Keep Fear Alive supporter!

  • Bob Stannard

    Interesting piece. Those of us who know Mr. Bailey have come to rely on his insight and global view of issues of the day. You’d be wise to pay attention to what he’s saying here.

  • David Usher

    The fundamental truth in all this is that ‘money is the mother’s milk of politics.’ Always has been and will continue to be. The present system of political parties adds great comfort to the politicians and voters who embrace them. Politicians have a source of ideological and financial support and too many voters are relieved of the responsibility of thinking for themselves.

    When information and money is no longer the exclusive domain of the traditional political parties, over time maybe we’ll see the end of partisan and ideological gridlock. Perhaps a new paradigm will emerge truly based on free speech and the money to distribute ideas and positions unhindered by antiquated party machinery.

    Such an unintended consequence may indeed benefit the Republic.

  • Ron Pulcer

    If the Republicans and/or Democrats go the way of the dinosaurs, here is another unintended consequence …

    The “first in the nation” status of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary will essentially become meaningless, and then we can also reform how the Presidential primary is conducted.

    If New Hampshire is small enough to have “retail politics” for Presidential primary, why not Vermont or some other small state?

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I think the Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, etc. monopoly should go the way of the …

    Computer punch card!!!

    My apologies to Herman Hollerith.