A remarkable thing just happened in the chaotic race for the Republican presidential nomination, and it wasn't the rise of Donald Trump. It was the impressive numbers reported for the first stage of the GOP's "money primary": the competition to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars a White House campaign requires.
Jeb Bush's campaign and its affiliated organizations had raised more than $114 million by the end of June. That's more than any non-incumbent has ever raised this early in a campaign. At this point four years ago, Mitt Romney had raised about $30 million.
A Bush aide said the early haul was intended to send a dose of "shock and awe" through the race, but it didn't frighten anyone out. Bush's top rivals showed that they could raise enough to compete. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz raised $52 million; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, about $45 million; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who wasn't even a candidate last month, $32 million.
Other challengers finished well behind. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul reported raising only $7 million, a disappointment.
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So maybe the GOP field isn't as chaotic as it looks. If money matters — and, as any campaign manager will tell you, it does — there are only four candidates with a real shot: Bush, Cruz, Rubio and Walker.
There's one more thing about those fundraising numbers that's important: They're so big because the money was raised mostly by the candidates' "super PACs," not their campaign committees. That's a huge change in the way presidential campaigns work, and it has consequences.
Traditional presidential campaigns can raise money up to a ceiling of $5,400 per donor — $2,700 for the primary campaign plus $2,700 for the general election. When that was the only option, candidates had to ask thousands of people for contributions — and not only rich people.
But super PACs, spawned by a series of Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United, can accept donations of any size. As a result, candidates can now finance much of their advertising by raising money from a smaller number of big donors, making those donors even more influential than they were before.
Bush's total receipts of $119 million, for example, included $103 million raised by his super PAC, mostly in large amounts. At one point, the super PAC reportedly told donors it would limit donations to $1 million per person, apparently for appearances' sake. (The donors' identities won't be reported until July 31.)
Legally, there's a flip side to the super PACs' freedom to raise big money: The committees are prohibited from "coordinating" their actions with the candidate or the campaign. But inventive political strategists have found ways to minimize that restriction. Bush, for example, spent months organizing his super PAC (and raising money for it) before he declared his candidacy in June. It is run by Mike Murphy, who reportedly spent weeks conferring with Bush and his campaign aides before splitting off to run the technically independent committee.
There's something tawdry about a system that allows a candidate to set up a super PAC, appoint its managers and appear at its fundraisers — but then requires him or her to maintain an artificial distance from its actual operations.
And it gets worse. In another innovation, candidates are setting up "social welfare" organizations, tax-exempt entities that don't even need to disclose who their donors are. On paper, those committees are supposed to pay for messages that focus on public policy, not a particular candidacy. But Rubio's social welfare committee is already running commercials that feature the senator denouncing President Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran — a campaign advertisement in poor disguise. Others are certain to follow suit.
Don't Democrats do this too? Yes — most of them, at least. But this year, the action has been on the GOP side; the Democrats' numbers have been smaller, and they haven't funneled so much into super PACs.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has reported $69 million in fundraising, a total that's second only to Bush. But unlike Bush, less than half of her money came through her super PAC. Bernie Sanders reported raising $15 million, all in traditional campaign donations (and most from small donors). In keeping with his message that campaign finance needs immediate reform, he doesn't even have a super PAC.
"There just aren't that many politically active Democratic billionaires out there," Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media, a research and consulting firm, wrote this week.
There's no simple solution to the campaign spending problem — at least, no solution that wins support in both parties. Obama and Clinton have endorsed a constitutional amendment reimposing limits on donations, but constitutional amendments are very hard to pass.
I find myself drawn reluctantly toward de-regulation: Lift the ceilings on donations; as a practical matter, they're already gone. But make the donors identify themselves, and make the candidates take responsibility for their fundraising and their expenditures. That wouldn't be pretty, but it could hardly be worse than what we have now.