Commentary Magazine


Topic: McCain-Feingold

Brown-Warren “Civility” and the Law of Unintended Consequences

In February, Lindsay Mark Lewis, a former Democratic National Committee finance director, wrote a heavy-hearted piece for the New York Times. Lewis wrote that he has always supported campaign finance reform, but something funny had recently happened. The Law of Unintended Consequences, that bane of liberal social engineers and red tape wielding bureaucrats, had hit Lewis–and hard. One of the effects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation was that it didn’t take money out of politics after all; it merely redirected money to less accountable groups like 527s and super PACs. Wrote a defeated Lewis:

Nevertheless, I’ve decided that the best way forward may be to go in the opposite direction: repeal what’s left of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain-Feingold, which severely limits the amount of money the parties can collect for their candidates.

Well what do you know–the cure was worse than the disease. So much worse, in fact, that the country’s biggest boosters of that cure were turning against it, ruing the day they went after the First Amendment with malice aforethought. Something similar, but slightly less ironic, is now taking place in Massachusetts between Senator Scott Brown and his liberal challenger, Elizabeth Warren. To great fanfare—OK, modest fanfare—Brown and Warren signed a pledge that would effectively ban third-party groups from the race. When Brown announced the deal to Fox News in January, the station’s website reported it this way:

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In February, Lindsay Mark Lewis, a former Democratic National Committee finance director, wrote a heavy-hearted piece for the New York Times. Lewis wrote that he has always supported campaign finance reform, but something funny had recently happened. The Law of Unintended Consequences, that bane of liberal social engineers and red tape wielding bureaucrats, had hit Lewis–and hard. One of the effects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation was that it didn’t take money out of politics after all; it merely redirected money to less accountable groups like 527s and super PACs. Wrote a defeated Lewis:

Nevertheless, I’ve decided that the best way forward may be to go in the opposite direction: repeal what’s left of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain-Feingold, which severely limits the amount of money the parties can collect for their candidates.

Well what do you know–the cure was worse than the disease. So much worse, in fact, that the country’s biggest boosters of that cure were turning against it, ruing the day they went after the First Amendment with malice aforethought. Something similar, but slightly less ironic, is now taking place in Massachusetts between Senator Scott Brown and his liberal challenger, Elizabeth Warren. To great fanfare—OK, modest fanfare—Brown and Warren signed a pledge that would effectively ban third-party groups from the race. When Brown announced the deal to Fox News in January, the station’s website reported it this way:

The Senate race in Massachusetts is going for the civility vote as Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren have agreed — under threat of financial penalty to themselves — to ban third party ads from their race.

Ah, civility at last. There was just simply no way this could end up having the opposite effect, right? Yet today, Rosie Gray reports from Lowell, Massachusetts:

The poison that runs through this state’s Senate race seemed to spill over into the traffic Tuesday night: Everyone was paralyzed, furious, and headed to the same place, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Tsongas Center.

Everyone sounds really angry and on-edge. What happened? Gray explains:

The Massachusetts Senate Campaign, between a moderate Republican and a liberal hero, began with a pledge that was meant to keep things clean. The campaigns promised not to let outside groups run radio and television advertisements on their behalves. That agreement appears to have accomplished roughly the opposite of its goal: Now, instead of letting outsiders do the dirty work for them, Warren and Brown have had to do it themselves. And a race that was always going to be tough has reached an unusual depth of personal nastiness[.]

So it didn’t take the negativity out of the election, it simply caused the candidates to stoop to the levels of incivility previously only occupied by third parties—“an unusual depth of personal nastiness,” in Gray’s telling. As Gray describes it, the fact that the candidates themselves are behaving this way has set the tone for everyone involved, so even the debate audience seemed on the edge of a brawl.

Of course, they didn’t mean for this to happen. They just signed legally binding agreements to curtail free political speech, and somehow it didn’t work out. They had good intentions—and paved the road to Lowell with them.

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