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Jane Mayer: Obama In 'Impossible Bind' Over Donors

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When the Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Citizen United case in 2010, the landscape of presidential elections shifted. SuperPACs — entities that can't make direct contributions but are allowed to engage in limitless spending and fundraising independently of the campaigns — have allowed for the some of the largest indirect gifts by wealthy Americans in the nation's history.

Obama is on record as opposing superPACs for normalizing gigantic donations, but his campaign has hesitantly decided to accept donations from these outside groups.

In this week's New Yorker article "Schmooze or Lose," Jane Mayer details how this new electoral climate has negatively affected the Obama campaign's appeal to Democratic donors — and the election at large.

"Obama has had to make a terrible choice between his principles and politics, and the practicalities of the political landscape right now — and it's an impossible bind he is in," Mayer tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Mayer writes that Romney has overwhelmingly outpaced Obama in the kind of "mega" donations that have flourished since the Citizens United ruling.

"By the end of July, the two biggest Super PACs allied with Romney, Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, had raised about $122 million," she writes. "The most prominent Super PACs allied with Obama, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, had raised only about $30 million."

The Obama campaign has not been able to maneuver the new campaign landscape as successfully as has Romney's, Mayer says.

"It's very, very hard for the Democratic Party — any Democrat, not just Obama — to compete with the Republican Party for the super, superwealthy vote in this country because the Democrats aren't offering policies that are as amenable to the superwealthy," she says. "The Democrats want to keep the progressive taxation system, they want to regulate industries, they want to keep a social safety net in place."

For her article, Mayer interviewed Obama's senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

"[He] said basically the pitch from Mitt Romney to Wall Street is, 'You are me, I am you, and I will take care of you,' " Mayer says. "Obama is not going to be able to match those policies, and he doesn't want to because that is not what his politics are about — so that's really been the underlying problem for Democrats trying to match these huge donations in the post-Citizens United world."

For direct donations of limited sizes, Obama still has an edge, Mayer says.

"Obama is outraising Romney still on donations directly to his campaign," she says. "It's when you move out of that regulated sphere into this outside money with these outsized donations that the gap opens up."

Interview Highlights

On the Romney campaign strategy

"What the Romney campaign is doing is having Romney mingle side by side with the superdonors to superPACs and to other outside groups. He has literally sat at the elbow of the biggest donor to these outside groups on the Republican side. At a breakfast in Jerusalem recently, the biggest donor [was] Sheldon Adelson, whose company is a gigantic casino operator both here and in China. And Sheldon Adelson sat there right next to Romney at a breakfast that was basically a fundraising breakfast. Adelson has now given upwards of $40 million to the Republicans in this election — to various outside groups — and he said that he will give up to $100 million. And people around him have said, in fact, that he views the amount of money that he would give as limitless — and so you've got the spectacle of a candidate literally right next to a donor who is spending money of an order we've never seen in American history before."

Romney's superPACs vs. Obama's superPACs

"If you look at the two largest superPACs on the Romney side, they have raised $122 million. By July they had, anyway. And in contrast, the two largest supporting superPACs that are supporting Obama have raised only $30 million by that period, so it's a very big differential. But it doesn't begin to explain how much of a gap there is in money. There's an even bigger gap in other kinds of outside groups that are not superPACs — there are nonprofits that don't disclose their donors, and there the differential is just overwhelming. Obama is being completely outraised in these secret donations which are piling in for Romney at this point."

On the two categories of outside groups contributing to campaigns

"SuperPACs reveal who the donors are and can spend directly on intervening in this election. And then there is a category of nonprofit group that the IRS calls 501(c)4s — and those are not supposed to be so political. They don't show who their donors are; they're secret. They take secret contributions and they are supposed to be public welfare groups that just educate the country on issues. So the money going to those groups is supposed to not be so overtly partisan or involved in the election."

How wealthy Democratic donors are finding ways to circumvent superPACs

"They're trying to find other ways to change the political direction of the country by spending, and so there are a number of initiatives out in California. There's a big hedge fund operator in San Francisco named Tom Steyer, who has pretty much singlehandedly funded an initiative out there that stopped a push to gut the auto emissions rules. He spent his money that way fighting one particular issue. You've got Jeff Bezos, who's one of the founders of Amazon, who's just put a tremendous amount of money into a gay-marriage initiative out in Washington state. So you're seeing more of that kind of thing where maybe the people with money, they just feel better about it. When you put money into a superPAC, what are you really buying? You're buying 30-second ads probably on television stations that are going to be a part of a volley of really negative fighting taking place and they don't want to see themselves as the moral equivalent of Sheldon Adelson."

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