If you were asked to describe what John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is up to these days, the obvious answer you’d give is “running for president.” He’s dividing his free time between Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s hanging out at cattle calls and rallies populated by other Republican presidential candidates, he’s begging rich people for money, pollsters are asking people if they’d like him to be the next president – he’s living the awful and rigidly scripted life of a presidential candidate. But he’s not a candidate. At least not yet.
On June 15, Jeb will make a very special announcement that will, in all likelihood, vault him into official candidate status. In doing so, he’ll put an end to one of the longest-running farces in modern campaign history. Back in December 2014, Jeb announced that he was “actively” considering a run and forming an exploratory committee. A few weeks later, he announced the formation of his Right to Rise PAC, and then went on a fundraising swing with the goal of raising so much money that other potential candidates would be scared out of the race. In this self-imposed limbo, existing as a sort-of-but-not-really candidate, he was free to wring unlimited donations from his wealthy benefactors and his family’s network of donors.
Most candidates do some version of this ridiculous dance to exploit the massive loopholes in campaign finance laws. Once you officially declare, though, you’re no longer allowed to raise limitless sums for your PAC. Jeb, however, has been doing this “I might be running, I’m just not sure” routine for half a year, and as he’s coyly demurred over whether he’s actually running for president, he’s done everything else a candidate for president does: hiring staff, giving speeches, fleshing out a platform, attacking other candidates, stating flat-out that he will “campaign hard,” etc. And, of course, he’s been raising obscene amounts of money. But because he’d never affirmatively declared himself a candidate – except for the one time that he accidentally did – he could state with something approaching plausibility that he wasn’t breaking any laws. It’s gotten so flagrant, so ridiculously contrary to the spirit of the law that good government groups have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to try and get someone – anyone – to take action.
Bob Schieffer even put the question to Jeb this past weekend on “Face the Nation,” asking him flat-out how it was that he wasn’t at least violating the spirit of the law. Jeb insisted that he wasn’t doing anything wrong because, doggone it, he still wasn’t sure whether he’d run. “Look, I hope I run, to be honest with you,” he said, being very dishonest. “I’d like to run, but I haven’t made the decision.” Nope, he hasn’t “made the decision,” but he has announced the date on which the decision he hasn’t made will be finally made. So he has just a few more days of agonizing decision-making and enthusiastic fundraising before the lucrative scam comes to an end.
At the point that he does become an official candidate, he’ll start in on a slightly different mockery of campaign finance law. Once Jeb’s in the race, he’ll have hard limits on how much money he can raise for the Right to Rise super PAC, and his campaign will be prohibited from coordinating with the group. But there’s coordination and then there’s “coordination.” Jeb’s already positioned Right to Rise to “work seamlessly” with his official campaign organization. All indications are that he wants Right to Rise to be as important a part of his presidential run as the campaign itself, and until the moment that he declares he can strategize to his heart’s content with the people who will be running the PAC. And who exactly are those people? They’re longtime Bush confidants and advisers who’ve been with him for decades. They won’t be “coordinating,” they’ll just be all there together, doing the same jobs and taking advantage of their shared history to work “seamlessly” toward the same goal.
Jeb isn’t the only candidate who’s exploiting these loopholes, but he’s gone further and done more to test the boundaries and undermine what restrictions do exist. He and the other candidates are free to wink and nudge their way around the law because the laws themselves are so stupid and weak. They’re also given a leg up by a Federal Election Commission that is a toothless and ineffective watchdog against campaign finance abuses. The only upside to having candidates like Jeb is that eventually they’ll get so bold and so outrageous in their money-grubbing that they’ll trigger the massive campaign finance scandal that will, hopefully, bring about the reforms that are so badly needed. Until then they’ll keep trying to expand the gray areas and pretending they’re doing nothing wrong, even as they do it in plain sight.