Commentary

Playing the Irony Card

This article appeared in the Washington Times on May 5, 2005.

Republican irony rarely befits conservative ends. Richard Nixon went to China and detente followed. George H.W. Bush raised taxes and lost an election. George W. Bush pushed a $17 trillion dollar prescription-drug entitlement that mimicked Lyndon Johnson’s expansions of the welfare state. Congressional Republicans are playing the irony card again by proposing to “reform” campaign finance by eliminating 527 groups.

The irony is undeniable. Until the enactment of McCain-Feingold in 2002, Republicans opposed restrictions on campaign finance. In part they did so for partisan reasons; they expected regulations would favor the Democrats and harm the Republican Party. That’s not surprising. After all, the Democrats supported “reform” for the same reason. For all the talk about corruption, the politics of campaign-financeregulation looked a lot like politics in general. Principles followed partisan interests.

Sometime in the 1990s this familiar story began to change. Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, congressional Republicans started arguing that campaign-finance restrictions threatened freedom of speech. And they believed it. The party paid a heavy political price to get the libertarian Bradley Smith appointed to the Federal Election Commission. The Republican Party also did little to protect its congressional majority through restrictions on campaign finance.

McCain-Feingold changed everything for both parties. About 20 percent of congressional Republicans ignored party leaders and voted to enact the law. Those Republicans largely represented Democratic districts. They were vulnerable to electoral defeat and welcomed the incumbent protections offered by McCain-Feingold. Many Republicans thus learned how campaign-finance restrictions could defend the Republican Party majority in Congress.

Democrats, now a minority party, learned to appreciate freedom of speech. Over 90 percent of congressional Democrats voted for McCain-Feingold because it banned soft money, a type of fundraising where the Republicans were thought to have a large advantage. But in the end the Republican advantage was a myth. The Democrats raised about as much soft money as the Republican Party. By the middle of 2003, Democratic leaders knew their support for the soft-money ban was a mistake.

The 527 groups were the way to correct their error. 527 groups are allied with the political parties but not run by them. Contributions to such groups are not limited by federal law. George Soros, for example, gave well over $20 million to 527 groups helping Sen. Kerry in 2004. They are a replacement for the soft-money fundraising that existed prior to McCain-Feingold.

The Democrats did well with the 527 fundraising. They took in perhaps four times what Republicans raised through such groups. Democrats may see unlimited contributions as an essential part of freedom of speech as well as a way to effectively fight future elections. Republicans see the other side of the deal: Rich Democrats could bring the end of Republican control of Congress. Pangs of conscience about freedom of speech are eased with the thought that “if we are going to have the McCain-Feingold law, it has to apply to everyone.” A switch on money and free speech by the GOP would come at a bad time. After all, the party that promised lower taxes and spending has delivered the fastest growth in spending since the 1960s. Having criticized the welfare state, the Republican Party in power worked hard to pass a new multitrillion dollar entitlement. The 527 legislation, if passed, appears to fit a Republican Party pattern of abandoning past promises in pursuit of political profits.

Will those profits appear? Republican leaders believe banning the 527s will hamper Democratic voter-registration efforts. But a multitude of nonprofits stand ready to conduct “nonpartisan” voter-registration drives in Democratic areas. Republican leaders also expect the GOP will raise a lot more hard money than Democrats, but their enormous success in raising hard money may reflect the talents of a president who will leave office in 2009.

We might also recall that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were a 527 group whose ads criticizing Mr. Kerry strongly influenced the outcome of the 2004 election. Republicans seem ready to ban all future swift-boat groups. With those voices silenced, what the mainstream media says will be louder and clearer. They will not be saying “elect more Republicans.” Members of Congress who worry that the parties are losing control of campaigns have a better option than banning 527 fundraising. They can vote to liberalize or remove the limits on party fundraising imposed by McCain-Feingold. History indicates that liberalizing party fundraising will have two results. First, the two parties will raise about equal sums of such funding. Second, the parties will be much more important than 527s in such fundraising.

The current effort to restrict 527s betrays Republican principles, especially their repeated commitment to limited, constitutional government. The Republican party along with Democrats and everyone else are better off if citizens can spend what they like on political struggle. That’s the American way, and once it was the Republican way. It should be so again.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.