Yesterday’s edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press” featured a battle of two surrogates: John McCain, who was there boosting Mitt Romney, and his former Senate colleague Fred Thompson, who was on hand to speak for Newt Gingrich. Given the polls that show Romney ready to win big in Florida, McCain had the better of the argument about the Republican presidential race. But when he got around to discussing the use of super PACs in the contest, Thompson made more sense.
As the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that was largely gutted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Arizona senator is still furious about the impact this had on his pet cause of campaign finance reform. His dire predictions it would all lead to “scandal” because there is “too much money washing around in politics” made for a good sound bite, but the super PACs’ role in the 2012 campaign is not so much a testament to the mistakes of the High Court but to the fallacies promoted by the campaign finance reform lobby. If McCain doesn’t like the way campaigns are being financed, and there are good reasons not to like it, then he should blame the entire reform movement, not a court that protected free speech rights.
It is true the spectacle of individual donors like Newt Gingrich’s friend Sheldon Adelson having the power to affect the race seems an indictment of the current state of the law. But super PACs exist, like their predecessors in recent elections such as the 527 groups made famous by the Swift Boat Veterans that attacked John Kerry, because of the reform impulse that seeks to take money out of politics. As this is impossible, all the reforms have done is to make it more difficult for candidates and political parties to raise money. Though some laws, like McCain’s unlamented legislation, have sought to extend those restrictions to individual citizens, groups and corporations, this violates the constitutionally protected right of political speech.
McCain thinks it is scandalous that a “casino owner and his wife” — meaning the Adelsons — have a right to spend their money promoting candidates and issues they believe in. But even if you agree some of the ads financed by Adelson (such as the Michael Moore-style documentary attacking Romney’s business career that was run by a Gingrich super PAC) were absurd, why should the government have any more right to stifle the Adelsons’ speech than it does that of the media or incumbent politicians?
As Thompson pointed out in rebuttal to McCain, the right of political speech cannot be restricted only to those candidates who can “self-fund.” That means all candidates and the parties should have the ability to raise the money they need, if they can muster such support, so long as there is some transparency. If McCain thinks it’s a bad thing that campaign finance law has marginalized parties, he should blame the whole “reform” impulse that has continually blighted our political life since Watergate, not the court.
If there are to be more campaign finance scandals, they are as much the fault of those who, like McCain, cling to the myth that money can be drained from politics if only you write enough restrictive laws. On the contrary, politics will be a lot cleaner once this “reform” impulse is permanently shelved.