The rise of super-PACs has been chartered well enough through coverage of the Republican primaries that by now Americans surely know these advertising behemoths have become the pivotal political playground of largely anonymous wealthy tycoons. Thanks to the 2010 U.S Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by rich individuals and corporations, just a handful of super-PAC donors -- or even just one -- can now tilt public opinion in a presidential race.
That became clear last week when it was discovered that Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of the brokerage firm Ameritrade, was considering individually funding a $10 million super-PAC advertising campaign against President Barack Obama. The malignant theme of the advertising barrage, as outlined by a proposed storyboard, was designed to make viewers believe that Obama was guided by the fiery, race-based invective of his former Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., one of whose speeches captured on tape was especially inflammatory.
The ad campaign would have portrayed Obama as a mesmerized disciple of Wright, whose views ruefully influenced Obama's presidential agenda. Though that pernicious theme was well-debunked in the last presidential campaign, it possibly could have tilted a large enough margin in a tight race to alter the outcome of the vote.
Fortunately, when word of the plan spread to national media, Ricketts and his family's business interests and plans quickly came under scrutiny and pressure to drop the super-PAC campaign. Two days later, he pulled the plug.
Problem is, negative publicity about the sponsors of such dirty tactics -- if their identity is known -- is likely to be far less effective as a monitor of the political market place when the presidential campaign shifts into high gear in coming months. By then, a media expose may just get lost in the avalanche of super-PAC advertising.
The scope of such advertising is likely to drown out debate on the scruples of its sponsors and sources. Less than a dozen super-PACs -- which are free to operate without so long as their advertising is not technically coordinated with candidates' campaigns -- are publicly participating in national or state campaigns. But more than 500 have registered with the Federal Election Commission. When they begin unleashing their pocketbook power this summer, voters will be inundated. And the consultants who conjure up and run their campaigns are likely to be as unknown to the public as their funding donors.
The campaign that billionaire Ricketts considered funding, for example, was created Fred Davis, a veteran Republican advertising strategist who had previously helped Utah's Jon Huntsman Jr.'s presidential bid campaign. The Our Destiny super-PAC he heads was originally funded by the Huntsman family, but, like other super-PACs, it doesn't have answer to candidates and their campaigns.
That operational freedom makes super-PACs as nimble as they are now ubiquitous. The Restore Our Future super-PAC, for example, has practically taken over advertising for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Run by two former Romney campaign workers, it's poured $44.5 million into pro-Romney advertising so far. Other super-PACs, and their directors and donors, have different agendas.
Americans don't know yet what slanted or false super-PAC campaigns advertising to expect, but the signs so far are dismal. Until the Supreme Court reverses course, wealthy donors seem destined to control the course of our politics.