In March 2000, Face the Nation panelist Gloria Borger asked George W. Bush about independent ads attacking his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The future president's reply invoked the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. "That's what freedom of speech is all about," he said. "People have the right to run ads."
During the 2004 campaign, after Democrats proved adept at raising money for independent ads attacking Bush, he sang a different tune. "I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill," he told reporters in August, referring to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which banned "soft money" donations to political parties and thereby increased the importance of independent political groups organized under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. "I don't think we ought to have 527s….I think they're bad for the system."
Shortly thereafter, Bush promised to join forces with McCain in seeking an end to what White House spokesman Scott McClellan called "negative attacks from these shadowy groups…funded by unregulated soft money." Despite Bush's sweeping condemnation of 527s, when his campaign filed a lawsuit in early September demanding action by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), it focused on anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org, the Media Fund, and America Coming Together.
Bush accused these groups of illegally coordinating their efforts with John Kerry's campaign, which just a few weeks before had made similar allegations in an FEC complaint against ads questioning the senator's Vietnam record. Ruling in a separate case on September 18, a federal judge faulted the FEC for defining illegal coordination too narrowly. Still, the commission was not expected to act on the dueling Bush and Kerry complaints before the election, and it already had decided to delay implementation of restrictions on 527s until 2005.
The new rules, approved in August, treat 527s as political action committees, subject to contribution limits, if they collect money based on a promise that it will be used to defeat a federal candidate. That would seem to eliminate the big checks from rich Democrats that so horrified Bush–unless 527s can learn to be more subtle when they ask for money than politicians are when they try to silence their critics.