For all the gnashing of teeth about Super PACs and the outsized influence of money on the good old politicial process by many would-be campaign-finance reformers, sometimes it's a good idea to just take a peek at which candidates have how much money in their pockets to spend on buying votes.
According to the chart below from USA Today, President Obama has a commanding advantage over all possible challengers for his flop space in the White House (as of the end of 2011). Obama has about four times the cash on hand (always a good thing!) as the likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Indeed, Obama has enough cash on hand that he should qualify as a flight risk the next time he dials up Air Force One to make a burger run.
Now it's true that Obama, who beats fundraising records like cyclist Lance Armstrong beats drug tests and poorly conceived and executed federal investigations, is going to need a helluva lot of dough to keep his current job. He's only been president for just the past few years and so he doesn't have much in the way of name recognition or time in office to run on. He spent more than twice as much as John McCain in 2008 and that was when he only had to defend two-and-a-half years in the U.S. Senate. He'll likely have spend at least four times as much as Romney to beat such a tough challenge.
After all, Mitt Romney is the son of famous politician who may have been brainwashed (the father's words) and who once ran the legendary carmaker AMC (you all remember AMC, don't you? Any Gremlin fans out there?). Obama has been chained to a day job at least since January 2009 while Romney has taken an indefinite leave of absence from roaming the country and slashing payrolls all over the place (I learned that from a documentary). I mean, Romney doesn't even have to shave every day anymore if he doesn't want to. He hasn't touched a Winter Olympics in a very long time and it's not even clear if he still lives in Massachusetts, a state he hasn't governed in years.
So when the campaign-finance zealots start carping about the need to reduce the disparity in money available to candidates, please remind them that incumbents at every level of office need significantly larger amounts of cash to counteract the twin effects of being in office and having ready access to free media. For many incumbents it's a killing combination. Did you know that in 2010, just 85 percent of House incumbents and 84 percent of Senate incumbents were re-elected? And going back to Richard Nixon, presidents who won their first term have only been re-elected four times out of possible six times? Nobody can feel safe with those odds.
What about the Super PACs that threaten to swallow the electoral process like Galactus swallows whole planets in Marvel Comics? Remember that Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money during elections as long as they don't cooridinate with particular candidates or campaigns. According to the New York Times, in 2011 GOP-friendly Super PACs raised a total of $70 million and spent $22.5 million while Democratic-friendly Super PACs raised $18.3 million and spent $12.7 million. But not to worry. Obama, reports the Times,
is signaling to wealthy Democratic donors that he wants them to start contributing to an outside group supporting his re-election, reversing a long-held position as he confronts a deep financial disadvantage on a vital front in the campaign….
"We're not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back," Jim Messina, the manager of Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, said in an interview. "With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can't be unilaterally disarmed."
I know what you're thinking: I guess now that Jim Messina is running Obama's campaign, the odds are pretty strong that Kenny Loggins is going to play at Obama's victory party.
As important, it means that Obama isn't going to just sit around and count up his own four-to-one cash-on-hand advantage over Mitt Romney. He's going to sit around and let his really wealthy friends help him win re-election. Which isn't a bad thing, if you agree that restricting speech and gutting the First Amendment especially in regards to overtly political speech is a bad idea.
But I'm betting that as the general election gets underway, we will hear barely a peep out of the people who think there's something deeply distressing about the role in politics of Super PACs and money and corporations and all that jazz. Or they'll (independently!) use the same logic that Jim Messina trots out: that Obama is only playing catch up with his money-grubbing GOP adversary.
Here's a recent Reason.tv video, "3 Reasons Not to Get Worked Up Over Super PACs."