Last week a staunch Republican friend came back from Capitol Hill with discouraging news. “I can’t believe,” he said, “how many things Republicans don’t believe in that I thought they held as a matter of principle.”
He might have been talking about limiting the federal government, controlling entitlement spending, federalism or a realistic foreign policy. In fact, he was talking about free speech. House Republicans have now voted to prohibit certain political organizations (called 527 groups).
Where did my friend get the idea that Republicans believed in free speech? Maybe he first heard the idea from President George H.W. Bush who vetoed a 1992 campaign finance bill passed by a Democrat Congress. That President Bush said the bill was nothing more than incumbent protection as well as a violation of freedom of speech.
Perhaps my friend listened to Republican leaders throughout the 1990s who said time and again that the various versions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law contravened the First Amendment. Or maybe my friend watched in 2002 as 80 percent of Republicans in the House and the U.S. Senate voted against McCain-Feingold.
But times change and political reality has a tendency to relativize principles. In 2004, George Soros, a wealthy man of liberal sympathies, spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money trying to defeat President Bush. A few other rich liberals spent similar sums, primarily through 527 organizations. A small number of Republican donors used the 527 vehicle to expend much smaller sums to defeat Sen. John Kerry. The most famous of the Republican groups was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Overall, Democratic 527s outspent Republican groups by four to one.
The 527s did not spend much in 2004 on congressional races. But the groups could get involved in the 2006 elections, and House Republicans, already shaken by scandals and low approval ratings for President Bush, are not in a mood to take chances.
You might think House Republicans have little reason to fear electoral defeat; after all, 98.5 percent of incumbents win re-election. But they don’t see it that way. Many members “run scared” for re-election, and their worst fear is someone like Soros showing up in their district with a few hundred thousand dollars to spend on attack ads.
The threat is not just from the left. At least one 527 group spent modest sums supporting conservative candidates running in GOP primaries against liberal Republican incumbents.
So it is that the Republicans have learned the limits of free speech and the virtues of restricting the corrupting influence of “Big Money” in our politics. There’s just one problem with that flip-flop. Money must be given to public officials to corrupt the political process. Money given to consultants and marketing companies to spread ideas cannot corrupt our elections or Congress. To be sure, the 527s of all stripes had political agendas, and George Soros was no doubt on an ideological crusade in 2004. However, under the U.S. Constitution, whether a majority of Congress or anyone else likes or loathes Soros’ crusade matters not at all. He has a right to spend his money spreading political ideas.
Some Republicans no doubt feel the Democrats deserve the 527 ban. After all, Democrats spent the better part of two decades passing and trying to pass campaign finance laws designed to harm Republican campaigns. For Democrats the chickens of the 1970s and the 1980s have come home to roost. But no one deserves to have their political rights restricted for partisan advantage. The Republicans didn’t deserve it in 1974, and the Democrats don’t deserve it now.