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Latest Column: Can Colbert’s Campaign Stir a Movement?

Herman Cain, Stephen Colbert’s anointed candidate in South Carolina, received more than 6,000 votes, barely a blip in the race but a sign that the satirist’s message of the insanity of the campaign finance system is registering with at least some members of the electorate. In my latest column for print Variety, reformers, including former senator Russ Feingold, assess the impact of Colbert’s comic commentary.

In a series of ads that have run in South Carolina this week, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC has in one fell swoop mocked negative spots, candidate obfuscation and, most of all, the sorry state of campaign financing.

It’s been ingeniously funny — but will it make a difference?

If you listen to Colbert, the character, it certainly has. He took credit for Jon Huntsman’s exit from the race last week, after one poll showed Colbert beating the former Utah governor in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, although both men were in the single digits.

As much as humor has been Colbert’s first priority, it’s not hard to see his gambit as a commentary on the electoral process. But those who have slogged away for years at reforming the election system aren’t in agreement that Colbert’s absurd way of explaining arcane issues is all for the better.

When it comes to showing the unseemly role of money in elections, Colbert has been able to bring attention to an issue that otherwise never might have gained public attention; certainly, he has gained traction for the idea of loosening politicians’ grip on the system. Yet his targets have been so on the nose — equating Mitt Romney with a “serial killer” mocks the over-the-top flood of SuperPAC attack ads unleashed against real candidates — that the result may be merely more public cynicism.

If that is a risk, most reformers will take it.

“This is the best shot in the arm on the issue that we have had in a long time,” says former Senator Russ Feingold, co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. “It has been brilliantly executed. The net result is that it is finally getting through to people that what the Supreme Court did in Citizens United (the 2010 ruling that removed limits of corporation contributions) was one of the greatest thefts of our rights that we have ever seen.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says that until Colbert, so-called professional “good government types” had trouble getting traction with their message of reform.

As she notes, “How do you make videos and visuals over campaign finance?”

The spots Colbert has done are revealing how ridiculous the current circumstances are, McGehee says. Front and center is the fact that in announcing his bid for the presidency, Colbert just handed over control of his SuperPAC to Comedy Central timeslot predecessor Jon Stewart, with the one rule being that they couldn’t coordinate activity. Colbert could raise limited contributions, the SuperPAC could raise unlimited sums — and viewers were left with one giant wink-wink over the insanity of the rules.

Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner and chairman, has been acting as Colbert’s lawyer, gamely answering questions and issuing legal judgments as a kind of straight man to Colbert’s wonkish deadpans.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, recognizes that Colbert has boosted interest in an issue that has been difficult to bring before the public, but worries that it will produce only further fatigue over the state of government.

“If (viewers accept) it all doesn’t matter and no one follows the rules, the potential is we get inured to the next possible scandal,” she says.

Reform advocates fretted last year when Colbert applied for a media exemption with the Federal Election Commission so Viacom staffers could devote time and production costs to create SuperPAC ads without having to report them as in-kind contributions. Although the FEC made a narrow ruling that limited its scope, there was plenty of worry that even a satirical push could have unintended consequences, perhaps even setting up further loopholes in the system.

As much as Colbert’s message is steeped in humor, public interest advocates and many others who appreciate Colbert’s drive also have to be mindful that he’s not in their business.

Colbert and Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity drew more than 200,000 people to Washington in 2010, but far from a rallying cry to support a candidate or cause, it was an irony-filled call to tone down partisan rhetoric. Glenn Beck is no longer on Fox, and Keith Olbermann is no longer on MSNBC, but other than that, you be the judge on how different things really are.

But for campaign-finance reformers who have wrestled for change, who saw the system improve under McCain-Feingold, then saw it unravel with Citizens United, there are few options left on the table for putting the issue in front of the public, night after night, with any hope that people may care about it.

When candidates are decrying SuperPACs, yet don’t want to “unilaterally disarm,” the system is paralyzed. As Colbert points out, even the Federal Election Commission is absurdly split down the middle, to ensure tie votes.

“Without a doubt we notice the interest level rising because of what he has done,” says Feingold, whose org Progessives United now has about 100,000 members. “If you can make people laugh about something awful, it puts them in the step of doing something about it.”

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