US Republican presidential debates are not for the faint-hearted. Last week in Jacksonville, Florida, Rick Santorum warned of the “threat of radical Islam growing” in Central and South America. Newt Gingrich advocated sending up to seven flights a day to the moon, where private industry might set up a colony, and reaffirmed his claim that Palestinians were invented in the late 1970s. Mitt Romney argued that if you make things tough enough for undocumented people, they will “self-deport.”
Given the general state of the Republican Party, such comments now attract precious little attention. Truth and facts are but two options among many. The party’s base, overrun by birthers, climate change deniers and creationists, floats its warped theories and every now and then one makes it to the top and bobs out into the airwaves.
So the oft-touted notion that these debates have been responsible for shifting the trajectory of this primary race would be worrying if it were true. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the Western world where these debates would have any credibility outside of a fringe party (even if the fringes in Europe are now spreading). Far from indicating the US’ exceptionalism, it looks more like an awful parody of the stereotypes most outsiders already had about US politics at its most bizarre.
“Those who follow this race daily may have long since lost perspective on how absurd it is,” the German magazine Der Spiegel reported last week. “Each candidate loves Israel. They all love [former US president] Ronald Reagan. Each loves his wife, a born first lady, for a number of reasons.”
The good news is, with the exception of Perry’s demise, the debates have not been pivotal. The bad news is that the truly decisive element has been something even more insidious: money. Lots of it.
This is not new. However, since a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and unions, it has become particularly acute. Moreover, the contributors can remain anonymous. The organizations that are taking advantage of this new law are known as Super Pacs. Even at this early stage of the presidential cycle, their potential for framing the race is clear. In the whole of 2008, individuals, parties and other groups spent US$168.8 million independently on the presidential election. This year on Republican candidates alone, where voting started less than a month ago, the Super Pacs have reported independent expenditure of almost US$40 million. In 2008, election spending doubled compared with 2004. This year industry analysts believe the money spent on television ads alone is set to leap by almost 80 percent compared with four years ago.
Money in US politics was already an elephant in the room. Now the Supreme Court has given it a laxative, taken away the shovel and asked us to ignore both the sight and the stench.
The only real restriction is that there should be no coordination between the candidate and the Super Pac. In practice, this is little more than a fig leaf. A few weeks ago, one of the ads, funded by the Super Pac supporting Gingrich, was slated for its many brazen inaccuracies.
At a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida, Gingrich told supporters: “I am calling on this Super Pac — I cannot coordinate with them and I cannot communicate directly, but I can speak out as a citizen as I’m talking to you — I call on them to either edit out every single mistake or to pull the entire film.”