In case you hadn’t noticed, American lefties have been having a bit of fun at Karl Rove’s expense. Their bête noire imploded on live TV Tuesday night; Fox’s Megyn Kelly had to talk him into admitting that President Obama had, in fact, won reelection. Conservatives are little happier with old TB. Rove blew hundreds of millions of sweet, sweet super PAC dollars…only for the GOP to wind up (mostly) empty-handed.
What did we learn about super PACs this year? What follows is an analogy that I hope might shed some light on their relationship with democracy.
This year’s sports news was dominated by the faux-dominant. Cycling (ex-?) legend Lance Armstrong joined baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon in the doghouse, their athletic accomplishments tarnished by their dependence upon banned substances. However, for all the hoopla surrounding Armstrong (et al), there’s a much bigger performance enhancement story brewing—in American campaign politics. That’s right. Today’s candidates are, um, juicing.
The United States may be politically divided. Our political system may be paralyzed by factions. But almost everyone—Right and Left alike—agrees that Mitt Romney was a pretty untalented presidential candidate. His opponents find him as unthreatening as his allies find him embarrassing. How did this guy survive this long? When did it get too late to make a call to the bullpen?
Here’s an easy way to think about Romney. Baseball scouts talk about so-called “five-tool” players; these are guys who can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, field, and throw exceptionally well. It’s not hard to imagine a similar rating system for presidential hopefuls. Five-tool candidates stay on message, hit the rhetorical high notes, attack and counterpunch their opponent, empathize with voters, and (obviously) maintain an excellent hairstyle. Sure, there are other relevant skills (just as there are in baseball) but these are among the most crucial. In both cases, these “tools” are the skills competitors traditionally need to excel in their field, whether it be on the diamond or campaign trail.
When most casual baseball fans think of steroids, they think about Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds smacking home run after home run—power hitters who went from musclebound to muscle-crazy. Not all performance enhancers fit that mold. While many famous steroid users took drugs to ramp up their existing strengths, many more took them to compensate for their weakest tools (Cf. Larry Bigbie, David Segui, Matt Lawton, Chris Donnels, Garry Bennett, et al). As it happens, political performance enhancement seems to follow the same pattern. Super PACs are better suited to candidates who lack some of the traditional American political tools—not the existing stars.
For example: meet Mitt Romney, aspiring big leaguer and political performance enhancer.
Devoted politics fans will remember Romney in his original form: a handsome, up-and-coming Senate prospect with dynastic connections and money to burn. Unfortunately, though he put some heat on canny veteran Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney was left off the big league roster when the “tryouts” ended. Undeterred, he spent the next few years traveling and preparing to make a play for the Governorship. When the big leagues came calling in 2002, Romney was ready. Despite some stubborn weaknesses—his insistence on hot-button-issue-switch-hitting, his charisma-free (message) pitching, etc—Massachusetts voters (narrowly) gave Romney his first shot at the game. He served as Governor for four years and hung up his spikes in 2006. After a few years out of the Show, Romney decided to make a run at the presidency in 2008, only to find himself doomed by his persistent handicaps. Once again, a wily, politically-talented veteran (John McCain) edged Romney for the callup. His career was at a standstill.
And now, meet Paul Lo Duca, former major leaguer and athletic performance enhancer.
Lo Duca tore up college baseball as a great defender who reliably hit well over .400 with decent power. But after five years in the minors (1993-1998), the Brooklyn-born catcher still hadn’t gotten a chance at the big leagues. Undeterred, Lo Duca tried playing in the outfield, at third base, and even at first—and he was still only used as an occasional fill-in for injured starters. From 1998 until 2000, he batted .241 in the majors with little power. In sum, Lo Duca had about hit his ceiling.
But, as it happened, neither man’s story was over. Mitt Romney rose from the ashes of his 2008 loss to overcome a host of established conservative opponents on his march to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Paul Lo Duca became a regular starter, batted .288 over the next eight seasons, hit 75 home runs, and made the All-Star team four times.
What happened? New advances in performance enhancement. Romney returned in 2012 backed by many millions of dollars concentrated in a super PAC called “Restore Our Future” (among, erm, many others). Meanwhile, Lo Duca got his hands on enough human growth hormone to become a premier major league catcher.
Remember the five-tools system: Paul Lo Duca was a great defensive catcher with or without performance enhancement—but he was nowhere near the same hitter. He needed human growth hormone to give him the offensive chops to excel in the major leagues. Indeed, it likely converted him from a one- or two-tool scuffler into a four-tool star.
Meanwhile, Romney didn’t need super PACs to help him to improve his hair or bolster his debating skills. He needed them to smooth over his gaffes with on-message ads. He needed them to level the gulf between the president’s considerable empathetic and rhetorical talents and his own—by painting Obama as an effete, out-of-touch celebrity, for example. He needed them to make him at least vaguely likable—if not inspiring. He needed them to keep Americans thinking about his jobs message instead of his tantalizingly mysterious tax returns/proposals.
In other words, Lo Duca and Romney needed performance enhancement to make them viable competitors at the top of their respective games. Without it, they both lacked the tools that are traditionally requisite for success. Without it, they were scrubs—not stars.
Obviously athletic and political performance enhancers come in multiple forms. Some users depend upon enhancement just to make it into the game, while others use it to become dominant. After all, President Obama had a couple of super PACs backing him as well.
Here’s the key difference between these and Romney’s super PACs: Romney needed them to stay in the race, while it’s not clear that Obama did. If Romney resembles a scrappy minor leaguer who uses performance enhancers to make it into the big leagues, Obama may be more like a three- or four-tool slugger who needs performance enhancers to become a once-in-a-generation superstar (if Romney’s the political version of Paul Lo Duca, perhaps Obama’s akin to Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro?). Put simply, Obama was a viable candidate with or without super PAC backing because he actually possesses most of the traditional political tools.
But that’s precisely the point. Super PACs still make mediocre one- or two-tool candidates newly feasible. They make it possible for boring, awkward, and gaffe-prone candidates to appear compelling, empathetic, and reasonable. Romney was every bit as inconsistent on core political issues in 2012 as he was in 1994. His rhetoric was no less wooden. His sense of humor was no less robotic. In sum, he didn’t address the very problems that hamstrung his previous campaigns. He simply papered them over (with greenbacks). His super PACs made it unnecessary to put in the work necessary to develop these skills.
“But wait!” you’re thinking, “How are super PACs any different from other huge sums of cash in politics? Isn’t all political dough created equal?” And that’s certainly true, as far as it goes. Yes, money is money is money, when it comes to funding a campaign. Always has been. Remember William Henry Harrison? “Old Tippecanoe” came from a reasonably wealthy background—it took a coordinated campaign to refashion him as a log-cabin-dwelling man of the people (and his opponents actually started the rumor that he was a hick!).
But super PACs are different because of the secrecy and flexibility that they make possible. Unlike traditional campaign money, super PAC donations are easier to keep hidden. They give their users an advantage from behind a shroud of secrecy. They’re also (ostensibly, at least) disconnected from the official campaign. That allows them (and the candidate’s campaign) organizational flexibility. Super PACs can act with a greater degree of impunity, since the official campaign can always feign mock horror and disavow any knowledge of ads that provoke a blowback. This gives a candidate a new political tool: with help from their super PACs, they can simultaneously speak multiple—even contradictory—messages to different audiences all at once. Indeed, these support organizations give them multiple “mouths.” They can give Romney credit for passing a statewide health care reform bill while he simultaneously decries that policy for varied reasons (one example among many).
In both cases, secrecy is key. Super PAC and steroid users admit as much by the way they talk about their performance enhancers. They try to keep their dependence at arm’s length. In 2002, Lo Duca told Sports Illustrated: “If you’re battling for a job, and the guy you’re battling with is using steroids, then maybe you say, ‘Hey, to compete, I need to use steroids because he’s using them…Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone it. But it’s a very tough situation. It’s really all about survival for some guys.’” This—as it was actually “all about survival” for Lo Duca himself!
Similarly, when Romney’s 2012 (primary and general election) opponents pointed out Restore Our Future’s seeming allergy to facts, Romney acted as though he’d hardly heard of the group. Hardly a gracious gesture to his former aides running the organization. Hardly a celebration of the super PACs that kept his campaign afloat after a bruising primary campaign. Like steroids, super PACs work best when they’re hidden away, unacknowledged by their dependents.
I’m no nostalgist. I’m well aware that super PACs aren’t the first innovation to change the way American politics is practiced. The same goes for steroids in baseball. If the direct election of senators and the advent of television changed politics, then adjustments in the height of the pitcher’s mound and the advent of Astroturf certainly changed baseball. The difference is that these are all changes to the structure of the competition—they adjust the very arena in which the competition takes place. Change the pitchers mound or introduce television and it applies to everyone. In contrast, performance enhancement dramatically, artificially, and illicitly changes the capacities of specific participants in these competitions. Super PAC users have a unique advantage over non-users.
“But Conor!” you say. “Romney lost!”
Indeed. In politics, as in baseball, performance enhancement doesn’t guarantee victory—it simply gives weak candidates unexpected viability. Over time, super PAC donors and their hired consultants will get better at distilling the maximum effect out of their dollars. Candidates will get decreasingly competent at traditional democratic skills…since there may be no reason to continue cultivating them.
That’s not all. Things stand to get interesting if (really “when”) performance enhancement starts to change the fundamental structure of American politics—just as it did for baseball. Super PACs and steroids adjust the relative importance of various skills and start to systematically rebalance the competition’s incentives.
Let me put this another way. A particular brand of offense dominated the steroid era in baseball—the various elements of “small ball” fell out of favor and fashion. Who needs great baserunners when home run power is just a few injections away? It doesn’t take much skill to trot home in front of your team’s bashers. Something similar could happen in politics: the balance of tools that was once non-negotiable for aspiring star politicians is shifting. What sort of candidates will excel in the brave new electoral world now emerging?
It’s still early days for predictions, but Mitt Romney could be the archetypal candidate of the future. The best candidates in the super PAC era might be those who are blandest and most pliable—these characteristics could become the new political “tools.” Like light-hitting catchers who need steroids to beef up their offensive skills, these dullards outsource their efforts to be compelling, substantive, and likable to their wealthy allies. (Incidentally, this goes a long way toward explaining why Mitt Romney’s rhetoric was so different when he thinks that the cameras aren’t rolling. As Mother Jones’ 47% exposé showed, his pitch to his donors is considerably starker than his public pitch.)
Think about it. In an era where charisma can be manufactured by means of a blanket advertising buy with a catchy, patriotic soundtrack, it’s no longer requisite for candidates to actually be appealing. Super PAC money insulates them from their deficiencies. Same goes for raw intelligence, policy awareness, and basic political competence. When all of these things can be artificially replicated by means of (expensive) message control, there’s no longer any need to actually be smart, up to speed, or savvy.
Finally, while this has been going on for some time, super PACs elevate it to a level of enormous sophistication. Political image management may be as old as Athens, but super PACs represent a sea change in the resources available to candidates. And it might be tired and trite and hand-wringingly banal to say it, but the increasing gulf between candidates’ image and the actual content of their campaigns (and character) will also erode the quality of American political discourse. Like most banal claims, this is pretty straightforward: it’s difficult to have substantive arguments about politics when the conversation is being so consciously manipulated. Worse still, it’s downright impossible to get that conversation off the ground when even our view of the participants is being obscured by super-PAC-funded distractions.
 Please don’t dwell on the specific political tools I’ve proposed. They’re mostly placeholders for the point I’m making. Tweak them a bit and it doesn’t change the argument.
 MSNBC’s Martin Bashir has marked the superficial similarity between super PACs and athletic performance enhancers. I’m focusing on the specifics.
 Human growth hormone (HGH) is not technically a steroid, but it is an athletic performance enhancer. The biochemical distinction between HGH and steroids isn’t especially relevant to my argument.