Can the candidates control the conversation?

With Super PACs pumping unlimited funds into Mitt Romney and President Obama's campaigns, the 2012 presidential election may be the most expensive in U.S. history. As Anthony Mason reports, projections are that both candidates could spend a billion dollars each.

Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
News Analysis

(CBS News) One story dominated the political conversation on Thursday: The New York Times' report on a leaked proposal for a super PAC to spend $10 million on a campaign that would highlight the ties between President Obama and his controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Mitt Romney's campaign, which wants to make the election a referendum on Mr. Obama and the economy, has shown no interest in raising Wright as a campaign issue. But in the age of the super PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, it doesn't much matter what Romney wants. If a billionaire thinks he has a better strategy for winning, there's no stopping him from using it.

Indeed, the memo about the proposal leaked on Thursday suggested that the candidate himself can be the problem. In it, Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who declined to run a provocative ad spotlighting Wright, is described as "a crusty old politician who often seemed confused, burdened with a campaign just as confused." It went on to say that "[o]ur plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama's opinions of America and the world were formed."

It seems unlikely that this particular proposal will be put into practice, since the super PAC said in a statement released after the story came out that it never planned to put it in motion. But the bigger picture is what's really important here: Thanks to the Supreme Court, one super PAC - and effectively one person - can effectively hijack the presidential campaign by putting millions of dollars behind a particular message.

That has significant ramifications. During the Republican primary campaign, the super PACs, which were often run by former staffers of the candidate they were backing, largely did the bidding of the campaigns. Technically, the super PACs and campaigns are unaffiliated and coordination between them is illegal, but the tacit collusion was obvious. In a general election, when there is just one candidate for GOP donors with often conflicting agendas and perspectives to rally around, that unspoken agreement is far less likely to hold.

That creates major headaches for the campaigns, which face the prospect of being forced into fights they don't want to have. For example, the Romney campaign would not want to deal with super PAC ads that falsely label the president Muslim. By the same token, the Obama campaign does not want to deal with ads that make an issue of Romney's ancestors who lived in Mexico. The campaigns know that while such attacks could fire up existing supporters, they could alienate the swing voters who are crucial to winning the election.

And it's not just about who wins. Because the candidates themselves no longer control the parameters of the conversation, they cannot head off attacks that they think are destructive to the country, the way McCain tried to do in 2008. That potentially means the further coarsening of what is already a nasty and divisive national political discourse.

The super PACs can be useful to the campaigns. Romney greatly benefited from the super PAC backing him in the primary campaign, which spent millions running attack ads on his behalf that were technically unaffiliated with the Romney campaign. In the general election, the existence of super PACs means that there is likely to be more money spent to help Romney win than will be spent to help the president, in part because liberal donors have been notably reticent to pour money into super PACs. But super PACs are a weapon that cannot be controlled, and as any science fiction fan well knows, those sorts of weapons tend to cause more problems than they solve.

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