Supreme Court

Must You Be a Republican (or, God Forbid, a Romney Fan) to Defend Freedom of Speech?

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Writing in The Huffington Post, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) responds to a column in which I argued that super PACs are making politics more competitive. Price, whose concerns about the "undue influence" of such groups I quoted in the column, does not really address my argument. Instead he cites dollar figures for independent spending, vaguely suggesting that politicians—not him, of course, but other politicians—are bound to be corrupted when so much money is being spent on messages aimed at influencing voters. He notes that Mitt Romney locked up the Republican presidential nomination despite lukewarm-to-hostile feelings toward him within the party's base, an outcome he attributes to the $46.5 million spent by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. But Romney, who was deemed the front-runner from the outset, had additional advantages, including his experience in the 2008 race, his well-developed organization, and the $90 million or so spent by his own campaign during the primary season. Indeed, as I noted in my column, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—two challengers who presented themselves as conservative alternatives to Romney—were able to stay in the race longer than they otherwise would have thanks to independent spending by wealthy supporters. If either of them had sucked a little less, he might even have lasted as long as Ron Paul.

After complaining that Big Money prevented conservatives from picking a GOP nominee they perceived as one of their own, Price worries that "wealthy conservatives" are determined to deliver the general election to Romney by spending whatever it takes. If they have that kind of power, why didn't they use it to nominate someone more to their liking? Perhaps sensing the contradiction, Price immediately pivots to a personal attack, suggesting that I am carrying water for an "alliance of wealthy conservatives and special interests" because they help to pay my salary. "On the same day Sullum's column was published," he ominously notes, "an alliance of conservative groups announced a plan to spend $1 billion in an attempt to dictate the outcome of the general election. Prominent members of the group include the Koch brothers—who also happen to be major donors to the foundation that funds Reason magazine, a fact Mr. Sullum did not disclose in his fortuitously timed column."

I'm not sure how "fortuitously timed" my column was. It was first published here on March 14, two and a half months before the Politico story about anti-Obama spending to which Price links. That was when Creators Syndicate distributed the piece to the various outlets that carry my column. Later a slightly revised version appeared in the June issue of Reason (which came out in late April) and as a result got cycled back to the website on Tuesday, which I guess is when Price happened to notice it. In any case, I am no fan of Mitt Romney, and I am inclined to think we'd be better off if Obama were re-elected, provided he faces a Congress controlled partly or entirely by the opposing party, than if Romney were elected along with Republican majorities in both houses. 

Although Price seems to think I play for the Red Team, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Republican, and I am puzzled by his assumption that campaign finance regulation has to be a partisan issue. The beauty of freedom of speech is that anyone can exercise it, regardless of affiliation or ideology. The same Supreme Court decision that let businesses say what they want about politics allowed labor unions to do the same, and it simultaneously unmuzzled nonprofit advocacy groups of every political stripe. Rich progressives such as George Soros and Peter Lewis are just as free to spend their own money on political messages as rich conservatives such as Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess (and always have been). The super PAC that brags about pushing Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) into retirement, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, also helped former El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke defeat another complacent incumbent, Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), in a race that Mother Jones called "a classic case of an up-and-coming insurgent taking on the machine."

When Price talks about the "undue influence" of "outside groups," he presumably is thinking of people whose opinions differ from his. Likewise, although he says people who spend money on anti-Obama or pro-Romney ads are trying to "dictate the outcome of the general election," I doubt he would say the same thing about people who spend money on pro-Obama or anti-Romney ads. Because I am not a member of any party, it may be easier for me to perceive a truth that eludes Price: In all of these cases, there is no dictating; there is only persuading, a process the Framers wisely put outside the control of censorious politicians.