Constitutional Law

Why Stephen Colbert's Super PAC Joke Falls Flat

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Institute for Justice lawyer Paul Sherman makes some incisive points regarding Stephen Colbert's supposedly satirical super PAC, noting that Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow is not the indictment of Citizens United that the comedian and fans such as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick think it is:

Virtually everything Stephen Colbert is doing was legal before Citizens United.

Although Colbert has often used the phrase "unlimited corporate money" in reference to his Super PAC, last Tuesday's disclosures paint a very different picture. Colbert's PAC, which raised more than $825,000 through the end of the year, has raised almost no corporate money. Indeed, the only two corporate donations he reported to the Federal Election Commission amount to $714, total. In addition to barely raising any corporate money, Colbert's Super PAC accepted only one contribution from an individual (of $9,600) in excess of the $5,000 limit that applies to regular PACs. 

In other words, more than 99% of the money Colbert has raised to mock Citizens United and Super PACs is money that has been legal under the campaign finance laws for decades.

While people with easy access to mass media have never had a problem getting their messages out, the restrictions overturned in Citizen United were a real impediment for people who were neither rich nor famous but still wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights. Yet Colbert and Lithwick apparently think we were better off when a political activists could be imprisoned for pooling their resources to criticize a politician on TV:

There will always be those who use their free speech rights to advocate that others' be restricted. And it is surely their right to do so. But such people aren't—as Colbert and Lithwick seem to believe—cleverly using the tools of the Machine to attack the Machine. They're simply advocating censorship for speech they disagree with, and weakening the basis of their own rights in the process.

For more on misguided criticism of Citizens United, see my story in the December 2010 issue of Reason. I considered the rap against super PACs in a column last month. Last year I questioned Lithwick's take on the constitutional challenge to Arizona's subsidies for political candidates, which she claimed was all about protecting "America's defenseless bajillionaires."

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  1. Colbert’s supposedly satirical super PAC

    I HAVE A SUPER PAC.
    DISCUSS.

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      1. YOU CAN’T HANDLE MY SUPER PAC.

  2. That explains that. So, why do all of Colbert’s other jokes fall flat?

    1. Because he’s only funny when Amy Sedaris and that guy who played Jellineck are there as well.

  3. Reading between the lines, this entire post is obviously a biting rant about sleazyarch.

    I haven’t watched Colbert in a while, so I wonder how he’s characterizing his success or failure in exposing any negative effects of Citizens.

    1. ^^ I hope this catches on.

  4. Am I the only one who doesn’t find the Colbert Report funny at all?

    1. Stewart destroyed Fox News pre-2005. Yet, Colbert found it necessary to devote an entire show to that tired joke.

    2. I still love the Daily Show (minus some of the interviews and in-studio correspondent segments), but I got tired of Colbert once Obama got elected.

    3. Colbert can be tears-running-down-the-face levels of funny, or obnoxiously leftist and partisan.

      It’s why they invented the fast forward button.

      1. I agree that Colbert is a funny guy, but I find the Report to be dull as dishwater. The joke got old a long time ago.

    4. No. I find it so unfunny it actually makes me sad.

    5. You must not have seen the “PED Xing for President” skit. Because that was fuckin hilarious.

      Also, Colbert’s SuperPAC is funny when it uses the money to make commercials lambasting the other candidates.

      But I know why hitnrunners dislike the Stewart/Colbert diatribe. As much as they bash the system, they still refuse to acknowledge that it is no longer a binary red or blue choice.

      When 40% of the electorate no longer self-identifies as either democrat or republican, comedians should tap into that, not reinforce the failing duopoly.

  5. Has Dahlia Lithwick ever said anything cogent or correct?

    1. Actually she has – which is what makes her moments of stupidity all the more annoying.

      1. Her “moments of stupidity” are the elephant in the elephant and hamster stew.

    2. If she has, I missed it.

  6. Wow. Just because you don’t get the joke doesn’t mean it’s not funny.

    1. And just because you don’t get the First Amendment doesn’t mean it is.

    2. Then why don’t you explain how he got it wrong?

  7. What fool has $9600 to spend on a joke?

  8. Federal campaign finance law has gone hither and yon, and the state laws are an ever-shifting patchwork of sundries, and the courts have variously enforced or overturned laws passed by the political branches … and yet I have not seen one instance in which any rule or combination thereof has actually succeeded in suppressing anybody from saying ‘after’ what they could say ‘before.’ Nor have I seen any instance in which anybody could get a message out ‘after’ that they could not get out ‘before’.

    In sum, I have seen absolutely no benefit to campaign-finance restrictions, and absolutely no detriment. They are just utterly ineffective for good or nefarious purposes equally. In an open society where everybody’s ideological cards are on the table, there simply is no need to “coordinate” to the least degree. Anybody can pick up an ideological football and run with it, and all the points scored will invariably go to the intended team.

    This suggests that the campaign finance laws are superfluous, and should be dispensed with.

    If any real progress is to be made on this front, and if we want politicians who do not have to beg money in order to fund campaigns (I think we do), the taxpayer can provide in-kind benefits to ballot-qualified candidates, viz., TV airtime, radio airtime, mailings (we do an official mailing in Massachusetts for the ballot questions, with written statements from each side). If it diminished even modestly the current overriding need for politicians to promise big government-funded payoffs to donors in exchange for small campaign contributions, it would be a very lucrative investment for the taxpayer.

    1. “If it diminished even modestly the current overriding need for politicians to promise big government-funded payoffs to donors in exchange for small campaign contributions, it would be a very lucrative investment for the taxpayer.”

      As a taxpayer, if the government awards one penny of my money to a candidate or a position I do not support, that is an infringement of my speech.
      Further, expecting government officials to distribute such benefits in any manner which would even possibly threaten their prerogatives is a fantasy worthy of, oh, the left.
      Take you phony “investment” elsewhere.

      1. So, if there is a taxpayer-funded TV-broadcast debate between two candidates on the ballot, that’s infringing your speech?

    2. and yet I have not seen one instance in which any rule or combination thereof has actually succeeded in suppressing anybody from saying ‘after’ what they could say ‘before.’

      Aside from Citizens United…

      the taxpayer can provide in-kind benefits to ballot-qualified candidates, viz., TV airtime, radio airtime, mailings

      Forcing people to fund political candidates is illiberal. The only way to end the buying of influence is to drastically reduce the size and scope of government.

      1. “The only way to end the buying of influence is to drastically reduce the size and scope of government.”

        … aaaand the only way to drastically reduce the size and scope of government is to end the buying of influence. Good luck chasing your own tail for the rest of your life.

        Forcing people to fund candidates is one thing. Forcing them to fund elections is something else. Equal time for balloted candidates at debates, forums, in mailings, in on-air announcements isn’t an illiberal funding of candidates, anymore than building a two-way road between the Dakotas favors northbound or southbound traffic.

  9. Colbert is an infuriating person who has put himself in a position where he basically can’t be criticized. If you insult the political cowardice of running a constant satire, you’re said to have no sense of humor.

    I like The Daily Show because Stewart makes jokes but is still actually saying what he means. Colbert is unwatchable.

    1. No, Stewart does the same clown nose on-clown nose off thing.

      http://jimtreacher.com/archives/001068.html

  10. Can anyone explain the supposed satire behind Colbert’s Super PAC? I see people writhing in ecstasy over the brilliance of Colbert and his Super PAC, but have never seen the joke explained.

    Colbert created a PAC to get a political message out. That PAC got a whole lot of money. He can now broadcast his political message. How is that not a vindication of Citizens United? (or, considering this post, the spirit of that decision)

    I could understand if his point was, “Only the wealthy and politically connected can easily start a Super PAC, so this really doesn’t help the little guy.” But I have a feeling he’s not making an anti-licensing/anti-regulation argument…

    1. MJG, see post immediately below. Your question is answered.

  11. Stephen Colbert is a condescending bag of rat shit.

  12. I find Colbert to be hey-lar-re-us, but I also think Will Ferrell always playing a man child character is his-stare-re-cal.

  13. I agree with you so far as to say Colbert’s campaign would have considerably more bite if he actually DID receive significant donations from corporations…but I really don’t think that’s the point. Consider the meaning of a million dollars in donations from everyday citizens (most of whom are young, underemployed twenty-somethings) to fund a PAC that openly calls attention to PACs. Even if it misses the bulls eye you should give it a little credit for calling attention to corporate-interest-driven campaigning.

    1. “Consider the meaning of a million dollars in donations from everyday citizens (most of whom are young, underemployed twenty-somethings) to fund a PAC that openly calls attention to PACs. Even if it misses the bulls eye you should give it a little credit for calling attention to corporate-interest-driven campaigning.”

      I’ll bet you thought there was a point in your post.
      Hint: There isn’t.

      1. ^^^^^ hint: try explaining why and you won’t look like such a “d-bag” online ^^^^^^

        1. jax,
          If that was aimed at my comment, the answer is simple:
          A PAC funded by ‘everyday citizens’ requires an organization to accomplish, which organization is likely to be either a corporation or perhaps a union.
          Meaning CC’s post is internally contradictory.

  14. You libertoid assholes are a humorless lot.

    1. I’m actually shocked by the comments here. Usually these people are pretty sharp, but there’s actually anger against Colbert that echoes the orangutans posting on RealClearPolitics. Jeez louize people.

  15. Colbert seems to have lost his touch of late, just seems forced and, well..not that funny anymore. Hope he can regain his mojo.

    1. I hope you can pull your head out of your ass.

      1. Max,
        If you ever learn how, maybe you could do a ‘show-and-tell’.
        Somehow, I’d bet you’re hoping someone will tell you.

  16. Colbert is a comedian that does political humor by pretending seriousness. Exposing that politics in america is a joke perpatrated by the 1% that controls congress.You may as well laugh ’cause there’s nothin’ you can do about it!

  17. More ointment on your derriere Mr. Sullum?

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