Campaign Reform or Free Speech?
Howd, Aimee, Insight on the News
Sen. McCain's latest proposal for campaign-finance reform, heavily supported by Democratic and media establishments, tried to limit the voices heard in political campaigns.
Sen. Mitch McConnell's opponents say he is almost single-handedly holding back progress in cleaning up a corrupt campaign system that spends too much money and is mistrusted by voters because it favors big donors such as unions and corporations. The Kentucky Republican says he's defending every citizen's constitutional right to get his or her message out, unrestricted by the government.
For the most part, the national news media have turned a deaf ear to McConnell's take on the issue and lauded his opponents -- most notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, a GOP presidential contender who was called to account for questionable contributions he accepted in the Keating Five scandal.
Case in point is the media circus starring this autumn's incarnation of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform proposal. Although destined to be the fourth version of the bill defeated within two years, the ill-fated proposal stole the heart of establishment media. The New York Times, for example, ran 119 pieces on its editorial page alone, excoriating McConnell and supporting the McCainsponsored reforms between Jan. 1, 1997, and Thanksgiving 1998 -- an average of one every nine days. (The Washington Post averaged one every 13 days in the same period.)
The proposals the Times advocated would have limited the amount groups of private citizens (labeled "special-interest groups") may spend publicizing their views on political issues (so-called "soft money"). Meanwhile, of course, the freedom of the media to spend as much money as they choose to print and circulate as many articles as they wish in support of their own "special interest" and other causes would be protected.
At a rate of $33,000 per one-eighth page, notes McConnell, "If some outside individual or group wanted to buy that same space on the New York Times editorial page to provide a contrary point of view, it would have cost them $3.5 million." In a democratic republic of 260 million, amplifying one's voice is just plain expensive, he says, and limiting funds spent to do so is a limitation on freedom of speech prohibited in the First Amendment.
So why do they do it? "There is no cause today in which the media are more supportive of legislation than they are on this so-called campaign-finance reform," says Tim Graham of the Virginia-based Media Research Center. "The classic -- but sound -- argument of the conservatives here is to suggest nobody benefits from campaign-finance reform more than the liberal media -- that the rich liberal media hate political commercials and ads because they go around their filter, and they want to be in control of everyone's political message."
Early McCain-Feingold proposals sought to ban all campaign donations that were not subject to federal regulation and, for two months before elections, to restrict any radio or TV ads that even mention a federal candidate, e.g. a member of congress. But in September, convinced by their failed attempts that such direct infringements on freedom of speech were not about to squeeze past senators who had taken an oath to defend the Constitution, McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, stripped the bill down to two increments: One would have eroded already weak legal protection against union use of workers' mandatory dues for political purposes they don't support. The other would have preempted state and local laws and put all activities of national political parties on behalf of federal, state or local candidates under federal constraints -- a direct step across the line of free speech in free elections. And this was "just a first step," explained McCain.
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to senators to warn that this went too far and would "abridge the First Amendment rights" of people trying to support issues important to their political parties. …