ColbertPAC is a Gag — and Nothing More

A New York Times piece about Stephen Colbert’s ongoing attempt to “satirize” campaign finance regulation appeared in the August 21st edition and made some decent points. It also got some things laughably wrong.

The piece titled “Comic’s PAC is More Than a Gag,” seeks to paint Mr. Colbert — full disclosure: he is generally respected as a comedian here at the Center for Competitive Politics — as something he simply is not. That is to say, his creation of a SuperPAC is nothing more than a gag and any measure of seriousness about it comes from those trying to figure out what kind of damage he may do to actual understanding of this complicated part of election law. Furthermore, a gag is all his efforts will ever amount to so long as he continues to refuse to really investigate the intricacies of the issue and, instead, begins to address some of the areas that could use satirizing to bring about positive change. That is, after all, what all good satire attempts to do.

The Times postulates that Colbert is in fact, lampooning a dull process and bringing it to light for a voting public not usually aware of the underground realities of campaigns and elections. But there could be consequences to his “silly sauce”:

“He is taking on a serious subject that many Americans find deadly dull and is educating the broader public on why it matters and what is at stake,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. Still, she adds, “it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, like a specific campaign or the electoral system.”

This is the part the piece gets right. Where it misses — and indeed where Colbert misses — is when it comes to actually enlightening the public on the process. For example, Colbert has routinely mentioned that he can accept as much as he wants from contributers and spend it in any way he wants, intending this as a criticism of the process guaranteed by last year’s Citizens United ruling. The subliminal suggestion by Colbert — and the outright suggestion in the Times piece — is that this is all done “with little in the way of disclosure.” How this jibes with Colbert’s running ticker across the bottom of the television screen showing the names of his donors is unclear. Even more unclear is how this complies with the actual law, which requires a PAC such as Colbert’s to publicly report all of its donors, their employers (in the case of individuals), their addresses, and the amounts contributed. Mr. Colbert has hired some pretty high-priced legal talent to help him get his PAC running – perhaps they should advise him, and maybe the Times as well – of his reporting requirements.

All of which leads to another point: how little Colbert seems to grasp that in trying to prove how easy it is to start amassing heaps of anonymous money for his fake SuperPAC, he’s actually demonstrating how just how complex and ripe for change the regulations are. First he hired a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, who normally charges over $500 per hour, to advise his PAC. Nevertheless, he did, after all, have to travel to Washinton to appeal to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to even begin the process of raising money. More importantly, he had to appeal to the FEC to find out how to and if he could make jokes about campaign finance regulation. And he then had to hire one of Washington, D.C.’s most experienced professional treasurers, Sal Purpura, to manage the PAC’s finances (Purpura is now Treasurer of Governor Rick Perry’s Presidential campaign). All of which makes Colbert’s prepared statement following the FEC decision, to those who know about the issue, seem a little silly — and not in a satirical way. Just in a factually inaccurate way:

In May, Mr. Colbert applied for status as a Super PAC with the Federal Elections Commission and was approved in June. “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical,” he explained.

Finally, there’s the matter of referring, as the Times piece does, to the First Amendment as a “loophole” Colbert has miraculously and cleverly discovered, rather than a vital protection of our free and democratic republic.

What Mr. Colbert has in fact managed to do is the opposite of what he was trying to do. He has demonstrated that the laws are extraordinarily complex; that compliance requires access to top legal and accounting talent; that average citizens cannot expect to navigate the law without such access to expensive, top flight talent, and that a person with a television show can have a good deal of political influence that is simply not available to the people who do form PACs. This hasn’t changed the direction of his comedic angle, but a good satirist would find the humor in his own folly. A great satirist would then set about teaching the rest of us something new about how to think about the issue. But that can’t be done if Colbert’s trying to teach us something he doesn’t understand himself.