The full force of money, permitted by Citizens United and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions, has become clear in the Republican 2012 presidential primaries. Behind this flood of cash are super PACs, independent groups able to raise unlimited amounts of money and to support or attack candidates but prohibited from coordinating with them. We don’t know the total amounts spent so far: millions here, millions there, it could add up to gazillions by November 6.

What we do know is that money doesn’t just talk; it laughs. It is making a spectacle of itself, as comedian Stephen Colbert’s send-up of super PACs and their money has made hilariously obvious.

What do we know so far?

In the real campaign, money has not yet determined a winner; it has only deflated the leading contender.

• In Iowa, Restore Our Future, a PAC that backs Mitt Romney, shot down Newt Gingrich’s rising star. Restore Our Future (run by former Romney campaign staffers) spent over $10 million on ads focusing on Gingrich’s “baggage” (messy marriages and divorces and million-dollar “consulting” contracts with Freddie Mac). Result: Romney up, Gingrich down.

• South Carolina reversed the dynamic. Winning the Future, the (not-coordinating-with) Gingrich super PAC, spent $2.84 million on ads featuring Romney’s “baggage” (vulture capitalist and rich man with undisclosed tax returns). Result: Romney down, Gingrich up.

• Florida turned the dynamic again. While Romney released his 2011 tax return in order to lighten his own baggage, Gingrich attacked the media for even mentioning his divorces. Still, a lot of baggage remains. The pro-Romney Restore Our Future outspent the pro-Gingrich PAC by four to one ($15.4 to $3.7 million) and ran a news clip of Tom Brokaw cataloging Gingrich’s 1997 violation of House ethics rules. Result: Romney up, Gingrich down. Still, the Republicans do not have a winner.

Romney may be the front-runner, but Gingrich is the tar baby. He has pledged to stay in the race to the end. So long as the super PAC Winning the Future raises more millions, he can go on attacking Romney—I mean the pro-Gingrich PAC can.

In the meantime, Stephen Colbert established his own super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. When Colbert announced his run for “President of the United States of South Carolina,” his lawyer explained on air that the Federal Election Commission would not allow the PAC to coordinate with the faux candidate. So Colbert turned it over to an independent committee headed by Daily Show host Jon Stewart (Colbert’s former boss). The handover was broadcast on The Colbert Report, transmitted from Colbert to Stewart by mysterious green energy waves.

Sure, there was the appearance of coordinating—but not really. After all, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow was now officially designated the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.

Colbert’s faux campaign and super PAC serve as a primer on our election laws and the mega-bucks circus they’ve fostered. What have we learned so far?

The Supreme Court and FEC rules have created a thick stew of conniving, duplicity, and hypocrisy—all perfectly legal. The requirement that super PACs not coordinate with candidates has proved a ludicrous fiction.

Does it matter? Remember, these unlimited funds have overwhelmingly been poured into negative advertising. That tsunami of denunciations has simultaneously affected voters’ choices and left them disgusted with politics. That’s one explanation for Romney’s sinking national poll numbers. Don’t imagine the Democrats aren’t preparing to do battle in kind. These new arsenals of money are not only determining who wins or loses, but also undermining Americans’ belief in democracy.

By holding election-finance practices up to the derision they so richly deserve, can Colbert and Stewart expose money’s effect on our electoral processes? Or are the real candidates and the real super PACs so absurd that a satirist like Colbert can’t compete? Isn’t there enough to laugh at in the spectacle of Romney and Gingrich and the super PACs they supposedly know nothing about and over which they supposedly have no control? Colbert is just a comedian; they’re real politicians. When the comedy of the absurd meets the politics of the absurd, which is likely to have the last laugh?

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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