Stephen Colbert is thinking about running for the presidency of South Carolina! He announced that he’s forming an exploratory committee to that effect last night at the top of the “Colbert Report," in case you haven’t heard. Yes, yes, we know – this is huge, something so big it may possibly upend the 2012 presidential race and democracy as we know it.
It’s as if a giant, smoking volcano that is not Newt Gingrich has burst out of the intersection of 17th and K Streets in Washington and is now threatening to spew lava over all it surveys. Or possibly not, since he may decide not to run, in which case, never mind.
Here’s the bottom line: Colbert has two bottom lines in this case, we think. The first is to get attention. We mean no disrespect by this – that’s what people in show business do. He’s seized upon an actual poll that shows he’s the choice of 5 percent of voters for the upcoming GOP primary in his home state of South Carolina and turned it into show-stopping comedy. That means better ratings for him and for Comedy Central.
Look, Colbert appears to love attention even more than your average spotlight grabbing funny guy, as a recent New York Times profile points out. Look at him at the start of his show, when the audience is chanting his name as he comes on – his face just lights up.
“I’m just a guy who likes to keep a low profile,” Colbert said last night at that moment. “Ask anybody who subscribes to the ‘Stephen Colbert 24/7 Low Profile Web Cam’.”
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The second bottom line is to expose the absurdities at the heart of the US campaign finance system. Colbert long ago launched a comedic crusade against super PACs, organizations created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision. Super PACs are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of cash from individual donors, and spend same on ads that promote or attack political candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate who benefits from their actions.
The “coordination” thing is a tissue-thin distinction, as Colbert rightly points out. Super PACs can be run by candidate’s ex-chiefs of staff, and so forth, and pick up ideas as to what to do just by following what their person says in the media.
Colbert’s main tool in this crusade has been his own super PAC, which he formed last year. Among other things, the Colbert super PAC has paid for an ad urging Iowans to vote for Rick Parry, with an “a”. It’s produced an ad that features GOP also-ran Buddy Roemer bemoaning that he has to appear in Colbert’s ad to get any attention (watch for Colbert on a unicorn at the end).
But candidates can’t overtly direct super PACs. So last night on the Report, Colbert handed over control of his beloved cash pile to Jon Stewart, his former boss and business partner. All perfectly legal! They did a handshake thing with special effects to dramatize the switch. They looked like Severus Snape and Narcissa Malfoy doing the Unbreakable Vow in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
“From now on, I’ll have to talk about my plans on my television show and take the risk that you’ll watch it,” said Colbert to Stewart.
That’s not so funny, really – that’s how Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry convey their wishes to their associate Super PACs, which are run by former aides, ex-business partners, and so forth.
Anyway, now Colbert continues onward, presumably milking this for all it’s worth through the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21. It’s too late for him to get on the ballot – he’d have to be a write-in. There isn’t even a post of "president of the United States of South Carolina.” (Insert your own Civil War joke here.)
But Colbert is a dangerous kind of comedian, almost a performance artist. So we would not be surprised if he continues to find ways to insert himself into the actual political process. He testified before Congress on the conditions facing migrant workers, after all, following one day’s stint as an agricultural picker. He and Jon Stewart held that big quasi-political rally on the National Mall in Washington last year.
“With your help and possibly with the help of some outside group I’m not coordinating with we can explore taking this country back.... Thank you, God bless you, and God bless ‘Citizens United’,” Colbert said Thursday night.