If I am driving faster than you are, NPR's Shankar Vedantam recently noted, that's because I'm late and in a hurry. But if you are driving faster than I am, that's because you're a reckless jerk. This is known in psychological circles as a fundamental attribution error: We attribute our own behavior to circumstances and others' behavior to personality defects. People do the same thing all the time in politics, Vedantam said.
Indeed. So it's a safe bet that when many Democrats heard a new super-PAC had been created last week to help Virginia senatorial candidate Tim Kaine, they chalked it up to circumstances: A super-PAC supporting Kaine's likely GOP opponent, George Allen, had just been unveiled. So Kaine was simply fighting fire with fire – just like President Obama, who also overcame his scruples and urged supporters to contribute to Priorities USA, a super-PAC started by two former Obama aides.
Republicans, on the other hand, see Obama and Kaine getting—even welcoming—help from super PACs and condemn them for hypocrisy. Obama has called super PACs a "threat to democracy." Kaine calls their participation in politics "a disaster" and says "the notion that these are independent expenditures" is "a great fiction." But neither man will denounce the PACs helping them because they do not wish to unilaterally disarm. That's how Obama put it, anyway. "The ends justify the means" would be another way. A third way would be what Thomas Adcock wrote in Drown All the Dogs: "The dirty business of a noble cause never ends."
In truth, Kaine and Obama are mistaken. There is nothing particularly nefarious about super-PACs, which are simply incorporated entities formed to influence elections. Countless groups do precisely that all the time—including newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.
When politicans complain about "outside groups" meddling in electoral politics, what they really mean is that they want to control the debate. Consider the case of Seattle radio hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson, whose on-air support for an anti-tax initiative a few years ago riled local government leaders who favored higher taxes. The officials went after Wilbur and Carlson; a judge ruled that the radio hosts' support for the ballot measure amounted to an in-kind contribution, and issued an injunction.
Wilbur and Carlson eventually prevailed, thanks to the "media exemption" in Washington's campaign-finance laws. That media exemption, like others around the country, is a double standard that exists for one reason only: to preserve the First Amendment rights of media corporations that otherwise would be silenced by the campaign-finance restrictions that seek to silence all other incorporated entities.
What makes the Washington case—and others like it—particularly interesting is this: The original rationale for campaign-finance restrictions was preventing corruption: Limiting contributions to candidates would keep them from being bought. Now campaign-finance laws apply even to ballot measures – initiative and referenda – where the possibility of corruption is nonexistent: ballot measures can't be bribed.
Silencing "outsiders" is just what Kaine sought to do when, in December, he "offered to reach an agreement to eliminate any involvement by outside groups." How, precisely, was he going to do that? Would he have tried to silence, say, The Washington Post editorial page, which is all but sure to endorse him? Or would he have included a double standard exempting media corporations? Prudently, he didn't say.
Now Kaine complains that "third parties filling the airwaves get to hide behind a cloak of secrecy," while he prefers "transparency." Transparency is indeed good. But you also could make a strong case against any transparency at all. If the goal is to prevent corruption—trading favors for cash or indirect help such as third-party advertising—then one way to achieve the goal would be to make all campaign contributions anonymous. Right now, Kaine knows that, for instance, his campaign received $55,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. If he had no idea where the money came from, it wouldn't matter how much anyone gave.
But he does know where the money came from. How many Democrats think that makes Kaine corrupt? Precious few, is the wager here. And precious few think the pro-Kaine super-PAC will corrupt him, either. And they're right.
As former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley Smith observed last month about Obama's super-PAC, this fatally undermines the case for campaign-finance restrictions: Probably no Democrat thinks Kaine is going to change his position on public policy or his vote on judicial nominees because of the money he got from the IBEW or anyone else. And no Democrat thinks his own voice will be "drowned out" by the Kaine super-PAC's creation of an ostensibly "unlevel playing field."
"Nobody on the left really believes what they always say about campaign contributions and spending," Smith concludes. "The 'reformers' do not believe money is corrupting. Rather, they believe that their political opponents are corrupt."
Exactly. My side drives fast because it's in a hurry. Your side is just a bunch of jerks.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.