Last night, Stephen Colbert became the conservative savior the GOP has been looking for over the past year, when he announced that “I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for president of the United States of South Carolina!” He claims to have been motivated by a PPP poll showing him out-polling Jon Huntsman in the upcoming primary state. I’m sure that the fact that Colbert missed the filing deadline in South Carolina, his home state, and the fact that write-in candidates aren’t allowed in Presidential primaries there won’t deter him. In fact, his SuperPAC, now under the direction of Jon Stewart and called the “Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC,” has already begun to purchase airtime:

ABC News has learned that the group is already buying up television air time in South Carolina. A source tracking ad buys in early primary states told ABC that the super PAC has purchased nearly $10,000 worth of time on a broadcast station in the Charleston, S.C. area between Jan. 15 and Jan. 19.

And according to a South Carolina news web site, the Palmetto Public Record, the super PAC is also reportedly “negotiating a substantial media buy in the Columbia market.”

This caps off one of the most brilliant pieces of performance art in quite some time. Colbert is “running” for President now as an evolution of his show-don’t-tell critique of the Citizens United decision and what it has meant for campaign finance in America. His SuperPAC has run ads in Iowa, used candidate Buddy Roemer in spots that technically didn’t “coordinate” with the candidate because they were considered issue ads, and tried to purchase naming rights to the South Carolina primary, adding a referendum to the ballot asking voters whether corporations are people or “only people are people.”

Now, he decides to run for President, but he cannot hold onto the SuperPAC at the same time. However, Trevor Potter, his campaign finance advisor, former chair of the FEC and a great foil in this satire, said on last night’s show that Colbert could transfer the PAC to somebody else, in this case Stewart. Even though Colbert and Stewart have a working business relationship, Stewart can run the SuperPAC in support of Colbert. “Being business partners does not count as coordinating, legally,” said Potter on last night’s show.

As satire, this goes light years beyond the March to Restore Sanity. Colbert is displaying every single problem with the Citizens United decision, and the mess of our campaign finance laws, by showing the practical application of them in the real world. He can raise unlimited funds from anyone and put them into his own campaign effort, circumventing all campaign finance laws. We’re not only seeing this play out in theory. Practically all the Presidential candidates have SuperPAC support from former associates. In Huntsman’s case the SuperPAC is mainly funded by his dad. They all claim no coordination – witness Newt Gingrich’s showy call today for his SuperPAC to “correct inaccuracies” in the ads slamming Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital record – but this is transparent nonsense. The SuperPACs clearly advocate on behalf of candidates, and have changed the course of elections – witness Gingrich’s implosion in Iowa after a barrage of Romney SuperPAC spending – without complying with any of the campaign finance laws for candidates.

Colbert is really taking this satire to a whole new level, as this NYT magazine article pointed out. Here’s a taste:

In August, during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, some Iowans were baffled to turn on their TVs and see a commercial that featured shots of ruddy-cheeked farm families, an astronaut on the moon and an ear of hot buttered corn. It urged viewers to cast write-in votes for Rick Perry by spelling his name with an “a” — “for America.” A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”

Just as baffling as the Iowa corn ads — at least to the uninitiated — were some commercials Colbert produced taking the side of the owners during the recent N.B.A. lockout. These were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. “What’s the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert said to me delightedly.

Last night, Colbert closed his announcement with the words “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless Citizens United.” Nobody has done more to show how ludicrous our campaign finance system has become. If it leads to a reassessment of the system, his SuperPAC money will have been money well spent.

David Dayen

David Dayen