You might not think that a cartoon would have much to do with so‐called campaign finance reform, but I believe it is illustrative of the problematic nature of the proposed reforms. Garry Trudeau is a liberal who draws the usually clever cartoon strip Doonesbury. It is carried in more than 600 newspapers throughout the nation and is so popular that, when most papers downsized their comic strips in order to run more of them, Trudeau said, “Not with Doonesbury you don’t.” And so in more than 600 newspapers all the other cartoon strips are smaller than Trudeau’s strip.
This year Trudeau has frequently used his strip to criticize the presidential candidacies of George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. Bush is shown as a cowboy hat over a floating feather (the latter being how Trudeau used to depict Dan Quayle)—the candidate as a lightweight. Forbes is mocked for his inherited wealth and stiff persona.
Now, if you or I were to purchase advertising space equivalent to the space taken up by Doonesbury in those 600 newspapers, it would cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each time. If we gave a candidate enough money to purchase that space, it would be against the law, violating the $1,000 limit for such contributions. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that if we agreed with Trudeau and wanted to buy space to reprint his strips attacking Forbes and Bush, that, too, would be against the law.
So, does that mean that a cartoonist has First Amendment rights the rest of us don’t have? Apparently so. As does, for that matter, anyone who happens to work in the media. Rush Limbaugh’s popular radio show allows him to lavish hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars of favorable or unfavorable publicity on any federal candidate he chooses. The same for newspaper editors who endorse candidates or television producers who slant their news coverage to reflect their political orientation.
Is it wrong that the media have this ability? Absolutely not. Vigorous, open political debate is essential to a free society. The problem is, not that the media have those rights, but that the rest of us don’t. After all, the Founders pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the Revolution. They didn’t say “lives and fortunes up to $1,000.”
This is not a frivolous point. For if Jefferson was right that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” then the revolution is ongoing. Having politicians tell us how much we can spend to promote our political views was a mistake from the beginning and hardly consistent with the spirit of the American Revolution.
But that spirit has not been of much interest to America’s political class during the 20th century. Their interest is in preserving their power, not preserving our liberties. In fact, the reason we should abolish contribution limits on federal campaigns, quite aside from the basic issue of liberty, is that the political class fears nothing more than a well‐funded challenger.
Without contribution limits, the quality of those challengers would soar—no more Michael Huffingtons, but serious candidates. Under the current system you either have to be a full‐time professional politician or political activist with name recognition to have a chance, or be independently wealthy. But how many good candidates pass up a run for office because they lack the name recognition, don’t have massive mailing lists from a lifetime in politics, and don’t like grubbing for thousands of small contributions?
It is appalling that three of the major presidential candidates at this point—Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain—endorse “reforms” that tear at the very fabric of the First Amendment.
Money should be viewed as a proxy for information in political campaigns. When the political class insists there’s too much money in politics, what they are really saying is that there is too much money they don’t control in politics. After all, Proctor & Gamble spends more on advertising in the course of a year than all the federal election campaigns combined. Who is to say how much is too much?
As part of their campaign finance reform efforts, Senator McCain and his liberal Democratic colleague Sen. Russ Feingold have been adamant in their demands that Congress make it illegal for individuals or groups to purchase radio or television ads that use the name or likeness of a federal candidate within 60 days of an election. This, in the land of the free. Thus, Cato Board member Howie Rich, head of U.S. Term Limits, would be committing a crime if he ran a TV ad stating, for instance, that George Nethercutt broke his word about serving no more than six years in the House of Representatives. The same would be true for tax, environmental, or any other groups attempting to inform the voters.
It’s ironic that the biggest “special interest” of all in this debate is the media themselves. While they self‐righteously condemn outside money in political campaigns, it is they (along with incumbents) who would benefit most from the restrictions. They become even more powerful gatekeepers of information going to the public. The media and the political class favor campaign finance reform, not to clean up politics, but to stifle open, honest debate that would be out of their control.
My recommendation for those participating in the next round of attacks on the First Amendment is to contemplate these sage words from the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo: “The First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one’s political views is wasteful, excessive, or unwise. In the free society ordained by our Constitution it is not the government, but the people—individually as citizens and candidates and collectively as associations and political committees—who must retain control over the quantity and range of debate on public issues in a political campaign.” It’s that simple. And that important.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.