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 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 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.
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. Messina said they didn't want to "unilaterally disarm" by failing to use the same technique.
I don't believe Obama's refusal to play the billionaire election game would have been unilateral disarmament. 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 over $225 million for 2012.
Had 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!"
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?
Romney's friends on Wall Street and in the executive suites of the nation's biggest corporations have the deepest pockets in the nation.
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 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 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 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 Obama has decided to embrace super PACs, big money is flowing as never before.