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Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is running for president. He's parodying the process — including, now, superPACS — in the same way he has parodied cable news. He's getting plenty of attention, but to really look into his political practical joke, I needed to go upstairs and find Peter Overby, NPR's man on campaign finance. I warned him it would seem like a dumb question, but I needed his help. What, exactly, is a superPAC?
"Welcome to my world," he told me. "It's nuts. It's the craziest situation in political money that I've seen in the something like 20 years I've been covering this." He said that for the first time this past year, super political action committees — superPACS — can raise unlimited money to run ads. Often, they're attack ads.
One such ad, produced by a superPAC run partly by old friends and staff of Newt Gingrich, twisted facts to the point that Gingrich was embarrassed by it. But because of superPAC rules, he couldn't make a phone call to get it off the air. He could only call a news conference and say he was "calling on" the superPAC to alter or pull the ads. But, he noted, "I cannot coordinate with them; I cannot communicate directly."
It's those strange superPAC rules about coordinating that Colbert is mocking right now. Colbert appeared on his show with the guy who was taking over his superPAC — maybe you've heard of Jon Stewart? — and their shared lawyer, who took them together through a careful discussion of the fact that they were definitely not coordinating. How much were they not coordinating? Well, the new name of the superPAC, once called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, is the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPAC.
They know they're on solid ground because their superlawyer is former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter, who used to work for John McCain and now relishes illuminating the absurdly broad loopholes in the rules about coordination. On The Colbert Report, he explained the basics of running the superPAC.
"Trevor," Colbert asked Potter, "is being business partners [with Stewart] a problem?" "Being business partners does not count as coordination legally," Potter told him. "Great!" Colbert answered.
But Stewart had questions, too. Could he run ads attacking Colbert's opponents? As long as they didn't coordinate, the answer was yes. He wondered about staff that was connected to Colbert already. "Can I legally hire Stephen's current superPAC staff to produce those ads that will in no way be coordinated with Stephen?" "Yes," Potter told him.
And the totally-not-coordinating continued. Over on Stewart's The Daily Show, Potter sat in on a three-way call with Colbert and Stewart during which they assured him, "We're not coordinating." In unison.
The superPAC under Stewart has already run ads attacking Mitt Romney that said, among other things, "If Mitt Romney really believes corporations are people, then Mitt Romney is a serial killer."
"I had nothing to do with that ad," Colbert told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News. "I can't tell Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow what to do. It's not my superPAC, George, it's the superPAC of — I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly — Jon Stew-aire, I believe it's a soft 't' ..."
The ads aired in Charleston, S.C., on a TV station run by Rita Littles Scott. "We did not know it was Stephen Colbert for a while," she says of the power behind the ads. On the contrary, she says, the ads fit right in. And she says no one has called to complain about them. "In fact, we've not received any phone calls except from the media."
Scott says she appreciates how Colbert and Stewart are exposing flaws and absurdities in the superPAC system. That's not what another humorist was trying to do when he ran for governor of Texas a few years ago. Kinky Friedman was trying to win. He lost to Rick Perry.
"My definition of politics: 'poly' means more than one, and ticks are bloodsucking parasites," Friedman says. He says he doesn't really like Colbert's humor. But he says at least Colbert is taking risks, so Colbert has Friedman's endorsement for president of the United States. "Of course he does," says Friedman. "That's why we need Stephen Colbert in there — to stir things up, to be a troublemaker. I very much approve of that. That's what Jesus was."
That's an analogy that would doubtless please candidate Stephen Colbert.
Correction: January 20, 2012 12:00 am — Previous versions of this story incorrectly referred to Stephen Colbert's superPAC as Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. The correct name is Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.