Commentary

The Terrible Secret of Campaign Finance Reform

Imagine a member of Congress proposed a law excluding African-Americans from election campaigns. The ensuing firestorm of public denunciation would all but end his or her political career. And rightly so. Through hard experience Americans have embraced a more inclusive democracy open to all who wish to make their case to the voters.

Yet, no one said a word in January when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) boasted on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” that his proposed restrictions on political advertising would prevent the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from running ads during a presidential campaign. To understand McCain’s boast we need to recall the hard fought presidential election of 2000.

The NAACP raised a lot of money and bought broadcasting time in several battleground states. Some of these ads sharply criticized candidate George W. Bush. One of the ads invoked the brutal slaying of African-American James Byrd in Texas. Some commentators found that ad offensive and uncivil.

However that may be, no one disputes that the NAACP had the right to raise the money and buy the broadcast time to make their case against the Republican presidential candidate. That right is founded in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has said that groups like the NAACP that urge their fellow citizens to vote for or against a candidate for office may not be restricted by election laws.

McCain disputes that right. Calling the NAACP a “special interest,” McCain told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews that his new law would have prevented the NAACP’s independent ad campaign during the 2000 election. Implicitly, McCain was saying that his new law would keep the NAACP – and many other groups – off the air in 2004 and beyond.

By way of justifying such a shocking exclusion, McCain argued that the NAACP ’s ads were “pretty brutal.” Reasonable people may disagree whether the James Byrd ad was unfair to George W. Bush. Reasonable people, however, should agree that the best antidote to abuses of freedom of speech by anyone at any time is more speech— not laws and regulations banning political expression. Our Constitution errs on the side of freedom in matters of political speech and debate.

McCain was also overlooking the benefits of the NAACP’s participation in election 2000. Their ads mobilized and informed African-American voters while stimulating public debate and private reflections. The NAACP’s efforts led to higher turnout than expected among African-Americans in several states. It’s also a good thing for the nation that a group so long excluded from political participation is involved in elections.

McCain’s restrictions on campaign finance passed the Senate in early April. Now they face a tough fight in the House of Representatives. Fortunately, the African- American political leadership is waking up to the dangers posed by McCain’s restrictions on political participation. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are worried that McCain’s bill will reduce voter registration and education.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), a member of the CBC analyzing McCain’s bill, said there was not “a lot of excitement in the caucus for campaign finance reform.” If McCain’s comments about the NAACP become more widely known, it’s hard to see why any African- American member of Congress should support the bill.

Americans have a right to speak out on politics. McCain clearly hopes his campaign finance bill would prevent the NAACP from speaking out during elections. That aspiration alone should be enough to doom McCain’s shocking assault on the liberties of the American people.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government.