Commentary Magazine


Topic: Federal Election Commission

Edwards Show Trial Perverts Justice

As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

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As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

The government seems to think that by treating any money spent on behalf of a presidential candidate as a reportable donation it can establish a broad legal precedent. Though few would weep if Edwards were jailed because of the money spent to hush up his tawdry personal scandals, if this is a crime, then virtually anything done with or on behalf of a candidate even if it is not spent on campaign expenses can be treated as a donation and therefore be regulated. Were the courts to let them get away with this sleight of hand legal maneuver, it would be a huge power grab on the part of the federal government. It would give U.S. attorneys and their masters at the Justice Department the ability to trump up prosecutions against any politician they didn’t like, including those who are not quite as hard to like as John Edwards.

This cannot be allowed to happen. What is going on in that courtroom is nothing less than a show trial with potentially dangerous consequences for not only politicians but also the free speech rights of Americans to express political opinions that are financed by contributions. We already knew the movement to enact increasingly onerous and confusing campaign finance laws was a blight on our democracy. But the effort to criminalize John Edwards’s peccadilloes is particularly perilous for the future of fair elections.

Unfortunately, the trial judge in this case may have bought into the elastic logic that is the foundation of the government’s case. We can only hope that even if the jury in this case is blind to the prosecution’s misconduct here that an appeals court will eventually point out that what is going on in North Carolina is a travesty of justice.

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Money Doesn’t Buy You Love — or Votes

The Democrats’ favorite excuse in the waning days of the campaign was that foreign money was their undoing. Soon-to-be-ex-Speaker (yeah, wow) Nancy Pelosi said everything was going fine until the Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove or a mystery woman from Hong Kong (oh, wait — that was their side) opened up their wallets. Yes, it was bunk. But little did we know how much bunk it was:

In two-thirds of the House seats that Republicans picked up Tuesday, Democratic candidates had more money behind them, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission. Overall, Democratic candidates in the 63 races that flipped to the GOP had $206.4 million behind them, a tally that includes candidate fundraising and spending by parties and interests. That compares with only $171.7 million for their GOP rivals.

The pattern appears to contradict widespread complaints from Democrats that they were being unfairly overrun by wealthy Republicans, many of whom donated money to conservative groups to spend on political races — unencumbered by the limits and public-disclosure requirements that constrain most political fundraising. The data show that even in many races in which Republicans had more outside help, they still had fewer resources than their Democratic opponents.

So it was in Senate races as well. Meg Whitman’s personal fortune was of no use. Neither did it help Linda McMahon. Sharron Angle outraised Harry Reid and still lost.

It seems that, rather than money, a candidate’s voting record, the economy, and the relative levels of enthusiasm of the parties’ supporters is what mattered. (“Republicans were able to win despite being badly outspent in Democratic-leaning districts. Outside Philadelphia, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D), the Democratic Party and groups backing them had about three times as much as conservatives and the campaign of former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick.”) Money is a convenient excuse, of course. But like blaming the voters’ “misperceptions,” it simply wasn’t the cause of the Democrats’ defeat. The voters knew exactly what they were doing, and no amount of money was going to convince them otherwise. And as for the self-financers, unless you are a solid candidate (Ron Johnson, for example), it’s better not to fritter away the family fortune.

The Democrats’ favorite excuse in the waning days of the campaign was that foreign money was their undoing. Soon-to-be-ex-Speaker (yeah, wow) Nancy Pelosi said everything was going fine until the Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove or a mystery woman from Hong Kong (oh, wait — that was their side) opened up their wallets. Yes, it was bunk. But little did we know how much bunk it was:

In two-thirds of the House seats that Republicans picked up Tuesday, Democratic candidates had more money behind them, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission. Overall, Democratic candidates in the 63 races that flipped to the GOP had $206.4 million behind them, a tally that includes candidate fundraising and spending by parties and interests. That compares with only $171.7 million for their GOP rivals.

The pattern appears to contradict widespread complaints from Democrats that they were being unfairly overrun by wealthy Republicans, many of whom donated money to conservative groups to spend on political races — unencumbered by the limits and public-disclosure requirements that constrain most political fundraising. The data show that even in many races in which Republicans had more outside help, they still had fewer resources than their Democratic opponents.

So it was in Senate races as well. Meg Whitman’s personal fortune was of no use. Neither did it help Linda McMahon. Sharron Angle outraised Harry Reid and still lost.

It seems that, rather than money, a candidate’s voting record, the economy, and the relative levels of enthusiasm of the parties’ supporters is what mattered. (“Republicans were able to win despite being badly outspent in Democratic-leaning districts. Outside Philadelphia, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D), the Democratic Party and groups backing them had about three times as much as conservatives and the campaign of former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick.”) Money is a convenient excuse, of course. But like blaming the voters’ “misperceptions,” it simply wasn’t the cause of the Democrats’ defeat. The voters knew exactly what they were doing, and no amount of money was going to convince them otherwise. And as for the self-financers, unless you are a solid candidate (Ron Johnson, for example), it’s better not to fritter away the family fortune.

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Abuse of Power

It is astonishing, really.

The president of the United States has accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, despite its denial and without supporting evidence, of illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaigns. “Just this week,” Barack Obama said recently about the chamber, “we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these [political] ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections.”

On CBS’s Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, if there is any evidence to support their accusation. Axelrod responded this way: “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?”

Likewise, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, wouldn’t back away from the incendiary charges yesterday. “The president will continue to make the argument that we don’t know where this money comes from and entities like the Chamber have said they get money from overseas,” Gibbs told reporters at the White House.

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It is astonishing, really.

The president of the United States has accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, despite its denial and without supporting evidence, of illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaigns. “Just this week,” Barack Obama said recently about the chamber, “we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these [political] ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections.”

On CBS’s Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, if there is any evidence to support their accusation. Axelrod responded this way: “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?”

Likewise, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, wouldn’t back away from the incendiary charges yesterday. “The president will continue to make the argument that we don’t know where this money comes from and entities like the Chamber have said they get money from overseas,” Gibbs told reporters at the White House.

Set aside the hypocrisy of this whole episode. (My former White House colleague Ed Gillespie points out that no Democrats, least of all Obama, expressed concern about such outside spending in 2008, when more than $400 million was spent to help elect Barack Obama, much of it from undisclosed donors.) Set aside the fact that Mr. Axelrod concedes that the chamber is abiding by long-standing rules, that it doesn’t have to disclose its donors list, and that no other organizations are disclosing theirs. Set aside the fact that the chamber has 115 foreign-member affiliates who pay a total of less than $100,000 in membership dues to a group whose total budget is more than $200 million. And set aside the fact that various news organizations have dismissed the charges, including the New York Times, which reports, “a closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the chamber does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents.”

What we are witnessing is the abuse of power. We are now in a situation in which the president and his most senior advisers feel completely at liberty to throw out unsubstantiated charges and put the burden on people (and institutions) to prove their innocence. Liberals once referred to such tactics as McCarthyism. But Joseph McCarthy, for all his abuses, was “only” a United States senator, one member out of 100. The president and his advisers, on the other hand, have at their disposal far more power and the ability to inflict far more injury.

What Obama and his aides are demanding is that the Chamber of Commerce prove a negative — and in doing so, they are trying to intimidate the chamber into disclosing what is, by law, privileged information. “If the Chamber doesn’t have anything to hide about these contributions,” Mr. Axelrod says, “and I take them at their word that they don’t, then why not disclose? Why not let people see where their money is coming from?”

Let’s see if we can help Mr. Axelrod out by providing him with an explanation.

For one thing, he is employing the guilty-until-proven-innocent argument. For another, the White House’s standard is being selectively applied. And it encourages slanderous charges because it forces innocent people to disprove them. All this is troubling in any case; but it is triply pernicious when it is practiced by those with unmatched power, because they have an unparalleled capacity to intimidate American citizens.

In further answering Axelrod’s argument, consider this thought experiment. It’s the year 2021, and a partisan critic of a future president repeatedly asserts that the president is addicted to child pornography. It turns out that the critic has no proof of the charge — but when told he is asking the president to prove a negative, he responds: “I take the president at his word. But just to be sure, we’d like to examine his phone records and text messages, his computer accounts, and his credit card receipts. What we want, in other words, is full access to all the relevant information we need. After all, if he’s innocent, why not disclose this information? Why not let people see what you’re doing with your life and free time?”

It must be obvious to Messrs. Axelrod and Obama that what they are doing is irresponsible, dangerous, and deeply illiberal. It’s important to note, however, that this libel is taking place within a particular context. The attack on the Chamber of Commerce is only the most recent link in a long chain. The Obama White House has targeted Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and John Boehner; George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; conservative talk radio; Fox News; the state of Arizona; the Supreme Court (for its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission); members of the Tea Party; critics of ObamaCare who attended town hall meetings; pharmaceutical, insurance, and oil companies; corporate executives, Wall Street, and the “rich.”

All this ugliness comes to us courtesy of a man who said during the 2008 campaign that “the times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook”; who told us that we should “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long”; and who assured us, on the night of his election, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”

Back in October 2009, I wrote about this White House’s burning anger and resentment toward its critics and what it foreshadowed. That inferno is burning hotter than ever – and if it goes unchecked, it will eventually lead to a crisis.

In an August 16, 1971, memorandum from White House Counsel John Dean to Lawrence Higby, titled “Dealing with our Political Enemies,” Dean wrote:

This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly – how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.

At comparable stages in their first terms, the Obama administration seems to be at least as eager as the Nixon administration to use the available federal machinery to “screw our political enemies.” We know how things turned out for the Nixon administration. President Obama cannot say he hasn’t been forewarned.

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Campaign Finance Reform? Just More Political Corruption

The effort by President Obama and congressional Democrats to sidestep the Supreme Court’s landmark free-speech ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case has sent these supposed advocates for clean elections down into the usual morass of special-interest legislation.

The Citizens United ruling overturned the McCain-Feingold federal restrictions, which prevented groups and corporations from exercising their right to comment on the behavior of our elected leaders. In this case, a so-called “reform” of campaign finance meant that incumbents had the right to silence their critics, such as in the instance that prompted the ruling, which concerned a film that was critical of Hillary Clinton and banned by the Federal Election Commission. The Court wisely saw this as a violation of the First Amendment.

Obama and the Democrats have engaged in nonstop demagoguery about this issue, which they pretend is about ensuring fairness but is actually about protecting politicians and the mainstream media from both scrutiny and competition. A measure proposed by Maryland’s Rep. Chris Van Hollen and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer attempts to skirt the Court’s decision by adding new disclosure rulings, which will burden those attempting to speak out and is almost certainly unconstitutional. As the New York Times reports, they’ve now made it worse by granting specific exemptions to some groups but not to others. And in order to gain the votes of moderate Democrats, they’ve added the National Rifle Association to the ranks of those who will be excluded from the new regulations. That has now been changed to include all groups with 500,000 or more members. That may lead some Democrats to think they’ll escape being tarred as anti-gun in a year in which anti-incumbent fever is running high. But all this does is narrow down the government’s discrimination between speech that it likes — such as campaign expenditures by labor unions — and speech it doesn’t like — such as any group targeted by the bill — while infuriating some liberals who are appalled at having to exempt the NRA.

This law isn’t just a mess. It also illustrates everything that is wrong about so-called reform of election spending, which amounts to nothing more than deciding who can speak and who can’t. The Times treats this as just the usual congressional log-rolling, in which deals are made to avoid antagonizing some while harming others. But free speech cannot be allocated like earmark pork legislation, which doles out funds to some districts while others get nothing. But to unprincipled politicians whose main goal is to silence their critics, there is no limit as to how low they will sink in order to pass a bill that will hamstring independently financed political speech.

The effort by President Obama and congressional Democrats to sidestep the Supreme Court’s landmark free-speech ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case has sent these supposed advocates for clean elections down into the usual morass of special-interest legislation.

The Citizens United ruling overturned the McCain-Feingold federal restrictions, which prevented groups and corporations from exercising their right to comment on the behavior of our elected leaders. In this case, a so-called “reform” of campaign finance meant that incumbents had the right to silence their critics, such as in the instance that prompted the ruling, which concerned a film that was critical of Hillary Clinton and banned by the Federal Election Commission. The Court wisely saw this as a violation of the First Amendment.

Obama and the Democrats have engaged in nonstop demagoguery about this issue, which they pretend is about ensuring fairness but is actually about protecting politicians and the mainstream media from both scrutiny and competition. A measure proposed by Maryland’s Rep. Chris Van Hollen and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer attempts to skirt the Court’s decision by adding new disclosure rulings, which will burden those attempting to speak out and is almost certainly unconstitutional. As the New York Times reports, they’ve now made it worse by granting specific exemptions to some groups but not to others. And in order to gain the votes of moderate Democrats, they’ve added the National Rifle Association to the ranks of those who will be excluded from the new regulations. That has now been changed to include all groups with 500,000 or more members. That may lead some Democrats to think they’ll escape being tarred as anti-gun in a year in which anti-incumbent fever is running high. But all this does is narrow down the government’s discrimination between speech that it likes — such as campaign expenditures by labor unions — and speech it doesn’t like — such as any group targeted by the bill — while infuriating some liberals who are appalled at having to exempt the NRA.

This law isn’t just a mess. It also illustrates everything that is wrong about so-called reform of election spending, which amounts to nothing more than deciding who can speak and who can’t. The Times treats this as just the usual congressional log-rolling, in which deals are made to avoid antagonizing some while harming others. But free speech cannot be allocated like earmark pork legislation, which doles out funds to some districts while others get nothing. But to unprincipled politicians whose main goal is to silence their critics, there is no limit as to how low they will sink in order to pass a bill that will hamstring independently financed political speech.

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Schumer’s End Run on the Court Hasn’t a Chance

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

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Free Speech, Not the GOP, Is the Winner in Court Campaign-Finance Ruling

Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold federal campaign-finance law is a tremendous victory for free speech in the United States. The 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission upholds the principle that that 2002 law and other similar attempts to regulate campaign finance flouted, namely, that the government should not regulate political speech.

The case grew out of a 2008 federal ban on the showing of a documentary film, Hillary: The Movie, during the presidential primaries in which Hillary Clinton, the object of the movie’s criticism, was a candidate. McCain-Feingold allowed the Federal Election Commission to stop the showing of the film because a corporation produced it, even though the corporation in question was a nonprofit. This case aptly illustrated the way this law did not so much protect the electoral process from the corrupting influence of money as it protected politicians from the effects of political speech that they did not like. Far from bolstering the democratic process, McCain-Feingold suppressed it. Like just about every other campaign-finance law that has been passed since the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal gave impetus to a drive to “reform” election spending, this law did not eliminate the influence of money on politics, but it did play favorites as to which sort of speech may or may not be legal. While efforts to bring transparency into campaign finance remain laudable, the process by which money began to be shunted first into political action committees and then, in the wake of McCain-Feingold, into new classes of unaccountable groups did nothing to make the system fairer or cleaner. Instead, it granted a government agency the power to regulate or suppress the one kind of speech that the founders of our republic would have agreed was inviolate: political speech. The court has now chipped away at this expansion of federal power to allow corporations and other groups the freedom to advocate on elections as they please.

The responses to this ruling from some in the political class are predictable. President Obama has issued a call to Congress to pass legislation to overturn the will of the courts, something that we trust the new absence of a filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats will render impossible.

Interestingly, among the first reactions was a blog post by New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, who claimed that, “at first blush, Republican candidates would seem to benefit from this seismic change in how political campaigns are conducted in America.” To back this assertion up, he quoted the president’s demagogic statement that claimed the “Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

As Zeleny also noted, labor unions and a host of Left-leaning groups are now also free to spend money to publicize their views, as they like. It should also be pointed out that the notion that big business is a dependable backer of the GOP is a myth. The crony capitalism that the bank bailouts have highlighted in the past two years has aptly illustrated the fact that many industries, including the denizens of Wall Street, have a stronger loyalty to corporate welfare that benefits them than they do to the principles of free enterprise. The steady flow of money from firms such as Goldman, Sachs (the principal survivor and beneficiary of the latest shakedowns) to Democratic candidates like Obama is proof of this.

The point here is that more political speech is not a danger to the republic; it is instead the lifeblood of democracy. The only ones to gain from the suppression of views via campaign-spending laws are those politicians who are the subject of critical scrutiny. Acting in the name of “reform,” campaign-finance-restriction advocates have sought to restrict political speech, effectively empowering the politicians and the mainstream media at the expense of the electorate. In a democracy, the people must be free to sort out the views of a host of disparate elements. The free flow of critical advertisements and independent documentaries such as Hillary: The Movie challenge the monopoly of public expression that such a system breeds. Let’s hope this ruling marks the beginning of the end of an era in which the political class used its legislative power to silence their critics.

Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold federal campaign-finance law is a tremendous victory for free speech in the United States. The 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission upholds the principle that that 2002 law and other similar attempts to regulate campaign finance flouted, namely, that the government should not regulate political speech.

The case grew out of a 2008 federal ban on the showing of a documentary film, Hillary: The Movie, during the presidential primaries in which Hillary Clinton, the object of the movie’s criticism, was a candidate. McCain-Feingold allowed the Federal Election Commission to stop the showing of the film because a corporation produced it, even though the corporation in question was a nonprofit. This case aptly illustrated the way this law did not so much protect the electoral process from the corrupting influence of money as it protected politicians from the effects of political speech that they did not like. Far from bolstering the democratic process, McCain-Feingold suppressed it. Like just about every other campaign-finance law that has been passed since the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal gave impetus to a drive to “reform” election spending, this law did not eliminate the influence of money on politics, but it did play favorites as to which sort of speech may or may not be legal. While efforts to bring transparency into campaign finance remain laudable, the process by which money began to be shunted first into political action committees and then, in the wake of McCain-Feingold, into new classes of unaccountable groups did nothing to make the system fairer or cleaner. Instead, it granted a government agency the power to regulate or suppress the one kind of speech that the founders of our republic would have agreed was inviolate: political speech. The court has now chipped away at this expansion of federal power to allow corporations and other groups the freedom to advocate on elections as they please.

The responses to this ruling from some in the political class are predictable. President Obama has issued a call to Congress to pass legislation to overturn the will of the courts, something that we trust the new absence of a filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats will render impossible.

Interestingly, among the first reactions was a blog post by New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, who claimed that, “at first blush, Republican candidates would seem to benefit from this seismic change in how political campaigns are conducted in America.” To back this assertion up, he quoted the president’s demagogic statement that claimed the “Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

As Zeleny also noted, labor unions and a host of Left-leaning groups are now also free to spend money to publicize their views, as they like. It should also be pointed out that the notion that big business is a dependable backer of the GOP is a myth. The crony capitalism that the bank bailouts have highlighted in the past two years has aptly illustrated the fact that many industries, including the denizens of Wall Street, have a stronger loyalty to corporate welfare that benefits them than they do to the principles of free enterprise. The steady flow of money from firms such as Goldman, Sachs (the principal survivor and beneficiary of the latest shakedowns) to Democratic candidates like Obama is proof of this.

The point here is that more political speech is not a danger to the republic; it is instead the lifeblood of democracy. The only ones to gain from the suppression of views via campaign-spending laws are those politicians who are the subject of critical scrutiny. Acting in the name of “reform,” campaign-finance-restriction advocates have sought to restrict political speech, effectively empowering the politicians and the mainstream media at the expense of the electorate. In a democracy, the people must be free to sort out the views of a host of disparate elements. The free flow of critical advertisements and independent documentaries such as Hillary: The Movie challenge the monopoly of public expression that such a system breeds. Let’s hope this ruling marks the beginning of the end of an era in which the political class used its legislative power to silence their critics.

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Obama’s Limit

Of course Barack Obama wants a voluntary limit on presidential campaign spending! He’s already famous and the author of two books.

In his filing to the Federal Election Commission last week, Obama shrouded his intention to follow Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in abandoning public financing of his campaign in a humble-sounding plan to limit spending in the general election. In his filing, which the New York Times quickly hailed as “an unusual challenge to his rivals,” Obama suggested that, if nominated, he might reach an accord with the Republican nominee to return private donations and rely only on the approximately $85 million available from federal funding sources.

Don’t be fooled by such false gestures of public-spiritedness. Senators running for president—especially those who have won as much attention as Obama—always favor limits out of sheer self-interest: spending limits restrict their less well-known opponents. If Senator Obama were to become the Democratic nominee and face, say, former Governor Romney, he would begin the general election campaign with a tremendous advantage.

Prominent Senators, by virtue of their proximity to the day-to-day Washington debate, have a much easier time of developing a national identity and reputation. They are fixtures on the Sunday talk shows. They offer sound bites to the press on any current controversy. They deliver long speeches on C-SPAN whenever they like. Most ex-governors—or almost anyone else running for President—have to spend millions of dollars during the early months of the campaign just to catch up, introducing themselves to the large swath of the country that barely pays attention to the primaries. The kind of public spending limit Obama proposes tilts the odds in favor of those who already have a household name.

There is another weakness of public financing that the New York Times curiously neglects to mention: it gives much more power to the news media. In a universe of strict spending limits, candidates don’t have enough money for advertising, phone banks, and direct mail. Suddenly newspaper editors and TV producers become the arbiters of how much the public learns about the candidates—which would be just fine, one imagines, with a certain media darling from the state of Illinois.

Of course Barack Obama wants a voluntary limit on presidential campaign spending! He’s already famous and the author of two books.

In his filing to the Federal Election Commission last week, Obama shrouded his intention to follow Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in abandoning public financing of his campaign in a humble-sounding plan to limit spending in the general election. In his filing, which the New York Times quickly hailed as “an unusual challenge to his rivals,” Obama suggested that, if nominated, he might reach an accord with the Republican nominee to return private donations and rely only on the approximately $85 million available from federal funding sources.

Don’t be fooled by such false gestures of public-spiritedness. Senators running for president—especially those who have won as much attention as Obama—always favor limits out of sheer self-interest: spending limits restrict their less well-known opponents. If Senator Obama were to become the Democratic nominee and face, say, former Governor Romney, he would begin the general election campaign with a tremendous advantage.

Prominent Senators, by virtue of their proximity to the day-to-day Washington debate, have a much easier time of developing a national identity and reputation. They are fixtures on the Sunday talk shows. They offer sound bites to the press on any current controversy. They deliver long speeches on C-SPAN whenever they like. Most ex-governors—or almost anyone else running for President—have to spend millions of dollars during the early months of the campaign just to catch up, introducing themselves to the large swath of the country that barely pays attention to the primaries. The kind of public spending limit Obama proposes tilts the odds in favor of those who already have a household name.

There is another weakness of public financing that the New York Times curiously neglects to mention: it gives much more power to the news media. In a universe of strict spending limits, candidates don’t have enough money for advertising, phone banks, and direct mail. Suddenly newspaper editors and TV producers become the arbiters of how much the public learns about the candidates—which would be just fine, one imagines, with a certain media darling from the state of Illinois.

Read Less




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