Campaign `reforms' clash with freedom of speech

August 31, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - When Congress passed a major new campaign finance "reform" law in 2002, critics said it would protect incumbents from being voted out of office. To which President Bush might reply, "Only if it's enforced correctly."

The United States has a long tradition of robust, unregulated and often vicious debate during political campaigns, particularly presidential elections. John Quincy Adams was accused of serving as a pimp to the czar of Russia. Andrew Jackson's enemies portrayed him as a murderer.

Thomas Jefferson, denounced as a "Jacobin anti-Christ," managed to endure his vilification with reasonable equanimity. Upon being inaugurated, he declared that even enemies of democracy should be left "undisturbed as monuments to the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is free to combat it."

But political skins are thinner now than they were then. After John Kerry blamed Mr. Bush for attacks on his war record by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and urged him to demand that the group cease and desist, Mr. Bush agreed that silence is golden.

Noting that he too has been attacked by such groups, the president said he wanted to work with Sen. John McCain, sponsor of the 2002 campaign finance "reform" law, to stop so-called 527 organizations from speaking their minds so freely. The one-time rivals quickly decided to join in a lawsuit demanding that the Federal Election Commission muzzle any independent groups with the gall to disseminate their opinions about this year's candidates.

Senator McCain offered the soothing reassurance that "we're not saying that 527s should be abolished. We're just saying they should live under the same campaign finance restrictions" as political parties and campaigns.

But the people with strong opinions who finance ad campaigns by 527 groups (named for the relevant section of the tax code) do so because they are restricted in the amount they can contribute in "hard money" to candidates and parties. So those interested citizens have two choices: Promote their views through independent groups or shut up. Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain say the right choice is "shut up."

When the campaign finance law was enacted, skeptics said it would not succeed in its goal of cleansing American politics of the influence of money, but would merely divert the cash into new channels. Judging from the rise of 527 groups, they were right. Regulating political expenditures is like loading squirrels into a golf cart: You can put them there, but you can't make them stay.

The so-called reformers who pushed for the 2002 law profess to be shocked that the FEC would fail to regulate these groups from raising and spending money in unlimited amounts. But the law had one big purpose, which was to stop political parties from raising "soft money" that they could use to support their candidates.

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is not a political party and doesn't behave like one - even if its anti-Kerry ads may have the intention of hurting one party nominee and helping another. Nor is, which has run plenty of anti-Bush ads, an arm of the Democratic National Committee. It's a liberal anti-war group with a strong distaste for the president. But if that makes it a political party, then Barbra Streisand is a political party.

Do we really believe such groups should have to withhold comment on issues of the day until they've gotten permission from the government? Passionate opinions, widely aired, can only enhance the public's understanding of the choice to be made in November.

Campaign reformers have the bizarre idea that free speech is a fine thing until it spills into political campaigns. But campaigns were one of the central reasons the framers guaranteed free speech - so voters could make informed decisions.

Mr. McCain and his allies think money is the root of all political evil, because it fosters corruption, or at least the appearance of corruption. That danger, though, can be addressed by requiring candidates and parties to disclose the names of their donors - leaving it to the voters to decide if anyone has been bought and sold.

Attacking graft by suppressing speech, by contrast, merely funnels political money into murkier refuges. It also invites politicians to try to rig the rules so as to help themselves and hurt their challengers - a temptation to which the president has succumbed.

This approach also obligates the government to treat the communication of political ideas as if it were an invasive weed, to be eradicated at any cost. But in a democracy, it's better to let a hundred flowers bloom.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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