John McCain

In Defense of 527s

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So now the Bush administration, caving to pressure from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is ready to bring a lawsuit to stop dreaded 527 groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Moveon.org from being able to participate in politics. Reports Reuters,

President Bush on Thursday sought to ease differences with ally Sen. John McCain by promising to take legal action to stop a wave of ads by outside groups, including those attacking the war record of Bush's presidential election rival John Kerry.

The White House said Bush made the commitment to file a lawsuit against the Federal Election Committee when he spoke to McCain in a telephone call from Air Force One.

Whole thing here.

This is a purely cynical gesture on Bush's part, as his goombahs know full well than no lawsuit will have any impact prior to the election.

But the larger issue is the completely crapola campaign finance "reform" laws that gave rise to 527 groups in the first place. I remain dazzled by the way in the First Amendment is routinely abridged in the name of laws such as McCain-Feingold.

More to the point, we should ask of any attempt to silence or restrict speech, especially political speech: Is society as a whole–not individual groups and especially not individual candidates for office–better off with the speech or not?

Despite legitimate questions about the veracity of claims made by the Swift Boat group and Moveon.org alike, I don't think there's any question that the 527s have added massively to meaningful political dialogue; that they are a "loophole" to a law designed to shut down dissent is simply a bonus irony.

If anything, we need more groups like these, not fewer. Leaving political discussion to the candidates themselves, or their official party spokesmen, is ridiculous–and a slap in the face of true democracy and citizen participation. Should only Coke and Pepsi be allowed to describe and critique one another? Nor should it be illegal for such groups to "coordinate" activities with candidates or parties. Let it all hang out and trust the American voters to sift competing truth claims the way we do in every other aspect of our lives. If we can pick between Macs and PCs, Hertz and Avis, Britney and Christina, I suspect we can be trusted to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to the likes of Bush and Kerry (and Nader and Badnarik, etc).

Indeed, the only thing wrong with 527s is that they're an outgrowth of a useless and onerous set of laws that always, in the end, act to limit the number of voices in American politics (and don't even get me started on the equally idiotic and repressive ballot-access measures which, in the name of democracy, exclude alternative candidates with the impunity more commonly associated with banana republics and tinpot dictators than the land of the free and the home of the brave).

A few years back, the current chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Bradley Smith, told Reason a simple fix to campaign finance laws. Here it is, in its bold simplicity:

"The ideal system is the system we had that elected Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland, which is no regulation."

Would that it were so.

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  1. From the original post: “More to the point, we should ask of any attempt to silence or restrict speech, especially political speech: Is society as a whole–not individual groups and especially not individual candidates for office–better off with the speech or not?”

    Uh, Nick, that’s usually the argument being made by anti-pornography crusaders and the like…

  2. So now the double-post gremlins have hit the main H&R page?

    The best part about 527 organizations is that if you think your candidate is doing a poor job of campaigning, or is missing out on a point that you think should be stressed, you can form a 527 and beat the opponent over the head with your argument without having to be a senior adviser to your candidate’s campaign.

    Of course, if there were no B.S. regs at all, you could do the same anyway…

  3. SR: That was way too simplified. Let me correct your spelling.

    that’s usually the argument being made by *any political ideal here* crusaders and the like…

  4. I think the 527’s might actually be a good thing.

    When push comes to shove, the person who controls any type of organization is the person who can sign their name the checks. Since politicians can’t control the money that goes into 527’s they can’t really control the 527’s. Further since the 527’s can’t endorse a particular candidate that means their work has to be largely carried out by advertising ideas associated with candidates.

    I not sure a 19th century style system would work. The system that elected Abraham Lincoln was riven with corruption and ran on patronage and cronyism. Back then, the government was miniscule and the major function of the federal government was to deliver the mail. Allowing unlimited anonymous money to pour into the hands of politicians that control over a third of the present day GNP seems like a recipe for disaster.

  5. Reason number 1,998,098,128,927 for why I’m not voting for Dubya.

    BTW, what law have the 527s broken? On what grounds is Dubya suing them?

  6. I am not sure Bush is doing this due to pressure from McCain; I think Bush really believes it is bad to have all those 527s out there – the guy signed the damned CFR act.

    Also, the left has spent tens of millions of dollars ($50 – 60 mil?) over the past few months trashing Bush, and no one had a problem with that (and Bush couldn’t demand they shut up). Now that Kerry is the target of one attack group, suddenly 527s are the subject of scrutiny? The major media is not dumping on Bush for his anti-free speech stance! Kerry can’t really denounce all 527s, since his side has a lot more money in 527s.

    If I were Shannon Love, I would say all this has been a part of the brilliant Bush/Rove plan all along 🙂

  7. I don’t think Bush signed “the damn CFR act” because he thought it was a good idea. I think he signed it because he thought it would be good for him politically to sign it. What do you think the New York Times, etc. would have written had he not signed it? I think he assumed the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional and throw it out.

  8. Flyover Country: The act was passed and signed during those days of “Bush Unity”. The final Senate vote was 59-40. Almost all of the 40 that voted against it were Republicans. Only Breaux, Nelson(Nebraska) and Hollings voted against it as Democrats.

  9. Bush told Larry King that the CFR hasn’t worked the way the thought it would. Apparently he got bad advice or didn’t think it through. First time for everything…

  10. “Bush told Larry King that the CFR hasn’t worked the way the thought it would. Apparently he got bad advice or didn’t think it through. First time for everything…”

    Well, yeah. I think that Bush expected the courts to take down portions of the CFR, and that basically he wanted it both ways:

    1) he wanted to vote in favor for political reasons

    2) he wanted the courts to clean up the mess.

    And of course, it so happened 2) didn’t pan out.

  11. Bush was aganist CFR before he was for it.

  12. Because the Democratic coaltion is much more diverse and rowdy than the Republicans, there are a lot more Democrats who don’t think the party pushes their message loudly enough than Republicans. Thus, Republicans are more likely to be just fine with their donations going to the party, while Dems are more likely to worry that their donations will be used for efforts that don’t advance their pet causes.

    So if Bush can shut down 527s, it will take a much bigger bite out Democratic donations than Republican donations. The SBVT group helps Bush by 1) making sleazy attacks he can’t make himself, and 2) in doing so, discrediting 527s across the board. Like Ken Starr, Special Prosecutor, the outrageous behavior is intended to both do the maximum damage to the opponent, and sabotage institutions that they’d rather not have around anyway.

  13. joe,

    If more Democrats are donating to 527’s because their message is not getting out, why is the only message I’ve seen from Moveon.org, ACT is Bush bashing. That agenda doesn’t differ from the Democratic party in general. In fact MoveOn.org stated goal is to defeat George Bush.

  14. joe, I agree but I think you’re giving Bush too much credit for thinking things through. This looks like it’s mostly McCain’s baby and Bush, being the pushover he always is, is acquiescing to McCain because he doesn’t want to see his buddy’s precious legislation turn into a traveshamockery.

  15. Yeah, Bush seems more like Lincoln every day that passes.

  16. Russ,
    McCain is Bush’s buddy? Gee, I’d hate to see what Bush does to someone he hates in a primary campaign.

  17. Bush can’t stand any criticism, and wants to outlaw independent (“shadowy” is his word for it) political speech. The country should be screaming in outrage at him, but it isn’t. By 2008, no one will be allowed to express an opinion of a political candidate without a license. Welcome to Hell.

  18. The 527 “loophole” is in the post-Nixon FECA, or the original 1974 campaign finance reform. BCRA was silent on the issue. See here for example.

  19. And do not forget, Bush has said, “There ought to be limits to freedom,” in reference to a little anti-Bush website.

    🙂

    Would that it were so.

    Are you mocking Kerry, Nick? 🙂

  20. “Because the Democratic coaltion is much more diverse and rowdy than the Republicans, there are a lot more Democrats who don’t think the party pushes their message loudly enough than Republicans.”

    That’s funny. From what I hear the only message the Democrats have is “anybody but Bush”.

  21. Bush, being the pushover he always is, is acquiescing to McCain because he doesn’t want to see his buddy’s precious legislation turn into a traveshamockery

    Bush and McCain are not “buddies” by any stretch of the imagination. If they were even remotely friendly with one another, McCain would be the Vice President right now and Cheney would be a historical footnote.

    And do not forget, Bush has said, “There ought to be limits to freedom,”

    Unless you favor abolishing all laws, you also think there ought to be limits to freedom.

    in reference to a little anti-Bush website.

    Yes, gwbush.com, which at the time was trying to trick people into thinking it was an official Bush website. The founders of this country did not protect freedom of speech so that dishonest people could commit fraud.

  22. “Because the Democratic coaltion is much more diverse and rowdy than the Republicans, there are a lot more Democrats who don’t think the party pushes their message loudly enough than Republicans.”

    More likely, as the Dems provided most of the political muscle behind getting McCain-Feingld passed(remember the “bi” in “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform” was primarily McCain and Shays), they knew all the artful dodges around it and got their stooges working on them before the ink was dry.

  23. Look at what w spent some one’s money on: a drive to discredit a veteran, vs an ?. This is free speech, but who can regulate free, real thought?

  24. garym writes: “Bush can’t stand any criticism, and wants to outlaw independent (“shadowy” is his word for it) political speech.”

    McCain Feingold wasn’t Bush’s idea. The Democrats and the Mainstream media loved it. If he hadn’t signed it he would have been lambasted for it.

    “The country should be screaming in outrage at him, but it isn’t.”

    Again, a large part of the country can’t scream. How many editorials were written praising McCain-Feingold for keeping big money out of elections? They would look like idiots for supporting such a monumental, unconstitutional failure and then criticizing Bush for closing a huge loophole in the law.

    “By 2008, no one will be allowed to express an opinion of a political candidate without a license.”

    Get a grip.

    “Welcome to Hell.”

    Again, get a grip. Whatever you say Tehrayzah

  25. Bush actually said “there should be limits to freedom” in reference to the same Zack Exley that moved from moveon.org to Kerry. The gwbush.com site was obviously a parody.

    Again, I can’t believe how simply wrong on the facts this entire discussion is.

    Flyover country calls 527s “a huge loophole” in BCRA. It is not a loophole in BCRA, it is a loophole in the 1974 FECA act, highlighted by FEC decisions in the 90s.

    MJ calls 527s an “artful dodge” around BCRA, but they are not. BCRA was silent on the issue, and that silence was the cause of much debate. Everyone knew at the time that BCRA wouldn’t shut down 527s, including Republicans, who had more 527s prior to BCRA than Democrats.

    Those who pretend that all the 527s do is “Bush bash,” meaning they don;t represent independent perspectives, are wrong. The different criticisms that come from the 527s are far different from those the Democratic Party would make (the liberal 527s have shifted the public discussion a bit, and recent Party ads are more biting in their criticism than they otherwise would have been). Moveon doubled its membership by opposing the Iraq war, criticizing Democrats as well as Republicans.

  26. Shannon Love,

    I not sure a 19th century style system would work. The system that elected Abraham Lincoln was riven with corruption and ran on patronage and cronyism.

    Corruption and patronage cronyism remains part of our system of government.

    Allowing unlimited anonymous money to pour into the hands of politicians that control over a third of the present day GNP seems like a recipe for disaster.

    If your major problem is anonymity the solution is not the system we have; the solution is to end anonymous funding of political campaigns, which is a far simpler measure than the convoluted process we see today.

  27. Flyover:

    garym writes: “Bush can’t stand any criticism, and wants to outlaw independent (“shadowy” is his word for it) political speech.”

    McCain Feingold wasn’t Bush’s idea. The Democrats and the Mainstream media loved it. If he hadn’t signed it he would have been lambasted for it.

    So what? Is a President helpless to veto assaults on the First Amendment merely because they have strong backing by the opposition party? And how does his signing it relieve him of responsibility for his current call for blanket censorship of independent political ads?

    George W. Bush took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not an oath to say whatever he thinks will get him the most backing from powerful interests. Terror of being “lambasted” is no excuse for forgetting that.

  28. As we debate, Bush’s legal team is shopping for an activist judge willing to outlaw free speech.

  29. “More likely, as the Dems provided most of the political muscle behind getting McCain-Feingld passed(remember the “bi” in “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform” was primarily McCain and Shays), they knew all the artful dodges around it and got their stooges working on them before the ink was dry.”

    Oh, please. There were articles published about this phenomenon, from The New Republic to Slate, before the bill was even signed. The poor widdle Republicans knew this loophole as soon as the Democrats did.

  30. Where are the Bush bashing ads? Sometimes it’s nice living in an uncontested state. Here in Colorado I don’t get to see any of this. I’ve yet to see the the “Swift Boat… Truth,” or the “Move On” ads. Maybe I should watch more t.v.

    Anyway, is my recollection wrong? I thought the 527 work around was predicted to benefit the Republican candidates more than the Democrats?

  31. deron, initially, the 527 exemption was supposed to benefit the Reps to a greater degree, because any factor that involved raising money was assumed to be a a winner for the party with a wealthier base.

    However, as hard as it may be to believe, there were unanticipated outcomes to the wideranging law. No, really.

    First, this time around, the Democratic base is especially riled up. Not just riled up, but inclined to view the party as too milquetoast in the dealings with Bush. So there were people looking to give, who wanted to give to someone other than the party.

    Second, Clinton’s ability to almost match Republican donations looks less and less like an aberration based on his unique political skills, and more like a larger trend. (Score one for social movement theory over “Great Man.”) So simply assuming “Way to raise funds = Republican advantage” isn’t as true as it once was.

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