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The Great Inanity of Super PACs: How to Spend Millions to Be Exhaustingly Boring

Plutocrats, it seems, have never been blessed with a handier tool than the super PAC. For them (not to mention career campaign strategists and consultants), it’s a dream come true: a magical conduit where money flows in one side and gets pumped out the...

Plutocrats, it seems, have never been blessed with a handier tool than the super PAC. For them (not to mention career campaign strategists and consultants), it’s a dream come true: a magical conduit where money flows in one side and gets pumped out the other as political attack ads. The New York Times looks at how these “super” political action committees are changing the 2012 presidential race, reiterating what we all already knew—basically, they’re easier to dump money into than campaigns, there are fewer editorial constraints, they’re favored by the very rich (and by Republicans), and you can go super negative without tarnishing your candidate’s image.


But forget the opaque, democracy-killing mechanics for a second. What’s the net impact of all this PACing to the average American? Mostly, they mean more terrible TV ads. A small chunk of spending goes towards direct mail operations, phoning voters, and email ads, but the primary function of most prominent super PACs is to produce TV ads. Which means that, however pernicious the principle guiding the Citizens United ruling may be (money is speech, corporations are people, and spending should be limitless), perhaps even more infuriating will be the deluge of forebodingly soundtracked, dramatically narrated, and quite lame TV spots we’ll all have to sit through. In other words, Super PACs are mostly just amplifying everything everyone already finds loud and insufferable about politics.

There are now over 500 registered PACs, including some officially registered, Colbert-inspired joke outfits run by college students. Most of the real ones are waiting until the fall to start spending, but some have already taken the plunge—and details are emerging about some of the higher-profile PAC plans. Take, for instance, this $10 million proposal that would explicitly link Obama to the incendiary comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. in an ambitious bit of high profile race-baiting.

The New York Times describes it: "The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," says the proposal, which was overseen by Fred Davis and commissioned by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. Mr. Ricketts is increasingly putting his fortune to work in conservative politics.The $10 million plan … includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama's former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as "black liberation theology."


And how might they do that? “The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an "extremely literate conservative African-American" who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln."”

Which makes sense. I, for one, abandoned all faith in Obama the moment he shaved his neck beard. But that’s the juiciest super PAC proposal out there. The majority are just piles more of mostly identical, largely untrue attack ads.

For instance: Crossroads GPS, a spinoff of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC that is filed as a special kind of nonprofit so that its donors can avoid scrutiny, launched a $25 million buy to air ads attacking Obama in swing states Here it is:

Yawn. But since the ad is full of rather egregious falsehoods, the Obama campaign responded with an ad “fact-checking” the Crossroads GPS spot (100,00 views):

Yawn again. But Crossroads shot back, spending some more of that sweet anonymous corporate cash on a rebuttal to the rebuttal (it’s only got 5,000 views):

As you can see, this is stuff is … tedious. And it’s just a taste. There will be literally hundreds more ads just like these. Back and forth. Pro and con. White noise. Radio spots, billboards even. More mailers, more annoying dinnertime phone calls. But mostly more bad TV. More of the same—but we’ve seen all this before. Who in the American public expects to turn on a sitcom and not get bombarded with half-true TV ads?

Perhaps the more controversial slots will occupy a news cycle or two, whilst allowing the candidate they’re supporting to voice disapproval from a distance. But the biggest change will be saturation—more ads, maybe better produced documentary-style ads, longer ads, more infuriating ads. Also, remember that while Romney and the GOP are out-PACing Obama, the incumbent still has a massive fund-raising lead in the general campaign. And it’s poised to break records, too, which will only further bolster the ad apocalypse.

But there just aren’t that many new, interesting or well-developed channels for super PAC spending power, no matter how formidable it may be. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the net impact of the Citizens United ruling this go ’round (until the PACs find more complex, nefarious projects in which to funnel their funds) will be the American public getting kind of pissed off about how many damn political ads there are on TV.