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The current presidential election provides the first real-time test of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms signed into law during this term of office. Its advocates lauded the bill's restrictions on so-called "soft money" -- a designation from previous and unsuccessful campaign finance reform efforts -- from flowing into political parties which used it to support their candidates indirectly through issue advertising. They promised it would keep floods of money from influencing voter choice. Its critics decried the potential for the law to be used as a club to curtail political speech.
It's apparent that the critics were correct.
Today's editorial in the Washington Post notes that despite the new McCain-Feingold laws, money has poured into this election like never before, both in soft money to outside interest groups and hard money donated directly to candidates. The numbers stagger the imagination; in just four years, both parties doubled their hard-money donations (Democrats to $230 million, Republicans to $381 million), while soft-money donations to 527s has exploded. These tax-exempt groups, which supposedly are not suppposed to campaign to influence voting for any specific candidate, have raised $154 million, a whopping 94% going to Democratic 527s, surpassing their soft-money collection for all of 2000.
However, unlike when the soft money went to political parties that had transparent responsibility for its advertising, the 527s have made accountability for its use of the money a thing of the past. This electoral cycle has seen advertising that once would only have appeared on homemade signs carried by fringe groups, and due to the heavily Democratic nature of the money, the abuses have mostly occurred on the left side of the political spectrum. Advertising bought with soft money and created by 527s have compared George Bush to Adolf Hitler and cast Republicans as the new Nazis. A wartime president has been undermined by the constant accusation of desertion despite all evidence and eyewitnesses that confirmed his honorable service.
More recently, the Democrats have complained about the small 527 of Viet Nam veterans speaking out against John Kerry and calling his service record into question. Instead of ignoring it or producing evidence to refute the allegations, as Bush did with the specious AWOL charges, Democrats have used McCain-Feingold to silence the veterans from speaking out at all. They accused Republicans of "illegal coordination" with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (a charge the Republicans had also made against the Democrats and other 527s earlier on), but also tried to use McCain-Feingold as a club with which to batter their publisher and bookstores to censor their bestselling book, Unfit For Command.
Is this what we wanted from campaign finance reform? A situation where political advertisements are broadcast with no clear responsibility, where political parties have to spend their time not coordinating with like-minded entities to make a strong case for their policies, and where publishers and bookstores are threatened with legal action if they conduct the honorable business of publishing political speech? And all the while, we stand by and watch the soft-money donations explode, with multimillionaires like George Soros able to float millions into shadow campaigns.
It's far past time to admit the obvious. When accountability is removed from the political parties, it frees up people to run all sorts of shadow campaigns -- and if this cycle the Democrats have had the advantage, the next cycle it could just as well be the Republicans. Instead of transparency, political campaigns have become even more opaque, and voters have no idea what, if any, connections can be made by so-called smear campaigns and the candidates they intend to benefit. And when national candidates and their campaigns start calling for books to be banned, then the worst fears of First Amendment violations have been realized.
We need to put an end to the silly distinctions between "soft" and "hard" money, and instead insist on transparency. If George Soros wants to sink $15 million into Kerry's campaign, let him do so directly and let's hold Kerry accountable for its use. If the Swiftvets want to write a book with documentary evidence of Kerry's malfeasance and a publisher wants to print it, let them abide by libel laws and allow the market to determine their viability. Otherwise, all sides will continue to charge forward in political debate to the lowest possible level in order to out-smear the other without any accountablity and without any recourse, and the electorate, already demoralized, will lose faith in and respect for our democratic institutions. For a nation under attack by fascists and religious fanatics, such an outcome will be fatal to our liberty in the long run.Sphere It View blog reactions
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» Set Loose the Dollars of War! from pennywit.com
Once upon a time, I thought it would be possible to reform campaign-financing with a few tweaks here and there. I thought campaigns had turned into money mills. I believed that campaign-finance reform would not impinge on political speech.
Tracked on August 27, 2004 11:42 AM
» On Campaign Finance Reform from The Resplendent Mango
Captain Ed is exactly right on this. He writes:[...] Leaving the freedom of speech issue aside for a moment, one problem I've always had with campaign finance reform is that it seems like a lot of people blindly support it because they think that po... [Read More]
Tracked on August 27, 2004 11:58 AM
» Captain's Quarters on the McCain Feingold disaster REPEAL NOW! from The Pink Flamingo Bar Grill
Would be interesting to know just how many times any bill has been repealed by the Congress. The McCain-Feingold Campaign reform law needs to be repealed it has been an unmitigated disaster. Exactly what could be worse than restricting freedom of speec... [Read More]
Tracked on August 27, 2004 12:24 PM
» Campaign Finance from RussBlog - Russell Newquist's Weblog
Captain Ed from Captain's Quarters has declared the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms as an abject failure - and he's right. Instead of cleaning up the system and cutting back on the moneys spent for political campaigns it's just made things co... [Read More]
Tracked on August 27, 2004 12:54 PM
» Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee from Captain's Comments
Democrats are widely recognized as the party championing free speech. You can see this by how the Republicans react to bad press. When Richard Clark published Against All Enemies, Vice-President Dick Cheney condemned it and demanded that national books... [Read More]
Tracked on August 27, 2004 5:38 PM
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