Nick Confessore has a fascinating story in the New York Times today. He reports that Democrats are planning to adopt the super PAC tactics of Republicans in order to compete more effectively. By itself, that’s no big surprise. But Democrats are asking the FEC for permission to do all this. What’s the point of that? Why not just go ahead and do it, the way Republicans have?
Lawyers are asking the F.E.C. to clarify how declared candidates, their campaign staff, and their volunteers can help court donors for independent super PACs — even whether a candidate could be the “special guest” at a super PAC “fund-raiser” with as few as two donors. The commission’s answer could have profound ramifications for the 2016 campaign, particularly for Democrats who, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been reluctant to engage too closely with super PAC fund-raising.
In seeking the commission’s approval for the tactics, Democrats contend that most of what they want permission to do — like having a candidate pretend to “test the waters” of a candidacy for months on end while raising money — appears to violate the law. But if federal regulators determine that such practices are legal, the lawyers wrote, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are prepared to adopt these tactics in the coming months, a blunt admission that the party cannot compete effectively if it forgoes campaign and fund-raising tactics already widely used by Republicans.
So the apparent plan here isn’t so much to get permission for all these shady practices, but to prod the FEC into declaring them illegal. This would muck things up for Republicans, who currently rely on them.
Or, in the worst case, the FEC would approve them and Democrats could safely adopt them too. All of which raises the question: why are Republicans so cavalier about dodgy fundraising practices while Democrats are so hesitant to adopt them? In some case, like that of Bernie Sanders, it’s based on principle, but I imagine that he’s the exception rather than the rule. Are Democrats afraid the media will be tougher on them than on Republicans if they push the envelope of fundraising tactics? Possibly. Maybe “no controlling legal authority” still keeps them awake at night. Or are they just wimps?
I don’t know. But I confess I was unaware of just how widely Democrats had shied away from the wild West world of super PACs that Republicans have embraced so eagerly. One way or another, that can’t last too much longer.