How many billionaires does it take to buy a presidential election? We're about to find out. The 2012 campaign is likely to be a battle between one group of millionaires and billionaires supporting President Barack Obama and another group supporting his GOP rival.
Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the Supreme Court's grotesque decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, which opened the floodgates to unrestricted campaign money through so-called "super PACs." But I'm not sure. What if Mr. Obama had stuck to his guns and eschewed super PACs?
Sadly, last week, the president caved. He endorsed a super PAC set up to funnel unrestricted campaign money from fat cats into his campaign. And he's made a total mockery of the court's naive belief that super PACs would remain separate from individual campaigns, by allowing campaign manager Jim Messina and even Cabinet officers to speak at his super PAC events. Mr. Obama will not appear at such events, but he, Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will encourage support of the Obama super PAC.
Why did he do it? His campaign aides explained that they had been surprised by how easily Mitt Romney's super PAC delivered Florida to him and pushed Newt Gingrich from first place to fourth place in Iowa. They also took note of the fact that Republican super PACs outspent the GOP candidates themselves in several of the early primaries. Mr. Messina said they didn't want to "unilaterally disarm" by failing to use the same technique.
I don't believe Mr. Obama's refusal to play the billionaire election game would have been unilateral disarmament. Mr. Obama has proven himself a hugely successful fundraiser, especially with small donors. He cobbled together an unprecedented $745 million for the 2008 election, including an unprecedented amount of small donations, and has already raised more than $225 million for 2012. Had Mr. Obama continued to eschew his own super PAC, he might have had a rallying cry that nearly all Americans would get behind: "More of the nation's wealth and political power is now in the hands of large corporations and fewer people than since the era of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. I will not allow our democracy to be corrupted by this! I will fight to take back our democracy!"
Mr. Obama could have highlighted the starkest choice facing America in a century -- an economy and a democracy dominated by great wealth, or an economy and a democracy that work for everyone. What better way to dramatize this choice than by offering America a choice between a political campaign financed by millions of small donors, and a Republican campaign underwritten by a handful of America's most powerful and privileged?
Mr. Romney's friends on Wall Street and in the executive suites of the nation's biggest corporations have the deepest pockets in the nation. Mr. Romney's super PAC got $18 million from just 200 donors in the second half of last year, including million-dollar checks from hedge-fund moguls, industrialists and bankers. If Mr. Romney is the Republican nominee, more money will come into his presidential campaign from the smallest number of super-rich than ever before in American history.
Had Mr. Obama taken a strong stand against this, my guess is that average Americans would have flooded the Obama campaign with enough small donations to overwhelm Mr. Romney's billionaire friends. The people would have been given a chance to be heard, and the people would prevail.
But we'll never know. Now that Mr. Obama has decided to embrace super PACs, big money is flowing as never before.
The president has called Citizens United a threat to democracy. If he is re-elected, and he's sincere about his concerns, he should go to bat for a system of public financing that will make it possible for candidates to raise enough money from small donors and matching public funds that they won't need to rely on a few billionaires pumping unlimited sums into super PACs.
In addition, he should fight for public disclosure of all donations, including those to super PACs. He should commit himself to nominating Supreme Court justices who will reverse Citizens United.
And I hope he shows the public that, despite support from some of the fattest cats in the land, he'll still fight for a tax system that requires millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share of the nation's bills.
One Obama adviser crows that Mr. Obama's decision to openly endorse his super PAC has had an immediate effect. "Our donors get it," the official said, adding that they now want to "go fight the other side."
That's exactly the problem. When a relative handful of super-rich Democrats want to fight a relative handful of super-rich Republicans, the rest of us are left on the sidelines. And if we're sidelined in the election, we could be left on the sidelines of our democracy.
As the great jurist and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "We can have a democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at www.robertreich.org.