The infamous Citizens United decision -- which permits corporations and individuals to flood election campaigns with torrents of cash through super PACs as long as they are independent of candidates' formal organizations -- has invited some of the worst abuses of negative campaigning.
The latest example is the disclosure by the New York Times of a draft proposal submitted to a super PAC supporting Republican near-nominee Mitt Romney. The draft planned to reopen the 2008 controversy over then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago.
Among other things, the draft for a $10 million ad campaign referred to Obama as a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln" and was rejected before any further implementation by the super PAC's chief contributor, Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and other interests.
A spokesman for Mr. Ricketts said the scheme was "merely a proposal" from a Republican television advertising consultant, Fred Davis, and "reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects." Mr. Romney also repudiated the plan, calling it "the wrong course for a campaign."
But the proposal illustrated again how wealthy individuals and groups are now able to affect the public discourse, or even dominate it, in the guise of these allegedly unaffiliated political action entities. Under campaign finance law, they are required to function without consultation with the formal candidate organizations.
That distinction, however, has often proved to be a sham. Former campaign officials routinely break off to lead or work for these super PACs, and no actual collusion is needed for these groups to provide campaign services benefiting the candidate or nominee for whom that official formerly labored.
This latest proposed anti-Obama ad campaign would have been an attempt to resurrect an old controversy, which Mr. Obama finally detoured in 2008 by repudiating the pastor's most racially offensive remarks. The formal Romney campaign professes to want to keep the 2012 debate on the president's troubles in righting the economy.
Both the Romney and Obama formal campaigns welcome the huge influx of money from the super PACs supporting their candidates. The formal campaign strategists, however, would prefer that they get the money without some of the unsolicited lame-brained ideas that often go with it.
The most essential and cherished power such strategists require is control of the campaign message, conceived in their hands and implemented through the candidate and the whole campaign apparatus. Free-lancing from any PAC is to be mightily discouraged.
It's true, at the same time, that occasionally an unaffiliated political action committee can perform campaign dirty work to the advantage of its favored candidate. That happened in the 2004 presidential campaign, when a supposedly independent group, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, questioning him as a recipient of combat awards in Vietnam.
Mr. Kerry and his campaign failed to mount any effective rebuttal of the ads, with which the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush blithely disavowed having any connection, even though they ads may well have helped him hold on to the Oval Office for another four years.
A politician or political scientist sitting on the Supreme Court could have easily anticipated the political consequences of declaring open season on campaign contributions, and so warned its champions of the poison they were pumping into the political process. Unless, of course, they realized what they were doing.
In any event, both the Romney and Obama campaigns, and their "independent" super PACs, are now going all-out to shatter all records for raising and spending in what will unquestionably the most costly presidential election in American history. Thanks a million, all you Supremes who voted to open the floodgates, for your own contribution.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.