Issue Ads: Let ‘Em Rip

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on September 20, 2004.

President Bush and Sen. John McCain would ban independently financed political attack ads from the TV and radio airwaves; Bush says that election season ads by “527” organizations, such as the one I run, the Club for Growth, “are bad for the political system.” John Kerry, meanwhile, has been damaged in the polls by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads financed by big Republican donors; many of his supporters want them pulled off the air.

Such complaints are drenched in hypocrisy, no matter which side they come from. Back when the White House was promoting the McCain‐​Feingold campaign law, President Bush emphasized that a “first and foremost” principle of democracy is to “strengthen the role of individuals in the political process by … protecting the rights of citizen groups to engage in issue advocacy.” That is precisely what 527 organizations are doing this year.

It’s interesting that liberal groups, which spearheaded the campaign reforms to keep the fat cats from spending unlimited dollars on the political process, were first out of the gate in the money‐​raising derby this election season, raising donations $1 million and $10 million at a time from, of course, fat cats. When George Soros wrote a $12 million check to MoveOn​.org and other groups to defeat Bush, liberals and the Kerry camp defended it as necessary to “level the playing field,” because the Bush‐​Cheney campaign had raised $200 million in small, hard‐​money donations.

Defending 527s in the current political environment is no easy task, but let me try.

The first false premise about 527s is that way too much money is being spent this election season. This year as much as $1 billion is expected to be spent on the presidential election — about twice what was spent in the 2000 campaign. But a lot of money is being spent precisely because the stakes are so high. We are deciding in November who will be our commander in chief in a war on terrorism against people who want to destroy our nation. We are deciding who will be the chief executive of the largest organization in the history of humanity: an enterprise known as the federal government. It spends $1 billion every four hours.

Political ads by outside groups fulfill an important role in our democratic system. They educate. They help keep Americans engaged in and attentive to the coming elections. The same good‐​government advocates who complain that Americans don’t pay enough attention to politics and bemoan lower voter turnout in elections in recent years also want to muzzle advocacy groups that remind Americans that they have something at stake in the elections. This year citizens are more engaged than any time in recent memory, and the 527 groups are both a cause and a consequence of that engagement.

The candidates and political parties want to ban the unrestrained flow of dollars to 527s so they themselves can monopolize the money and the message during the campaign season. Incumbents in Congress all rallied in favor of regulating uncapped spending by issue‐​oriented groups, because they want to ensure that their 96 percent reelection rate is protected against attack ads that might bring attention their positions on controversial issues. A ban on outside issue ads before an election won’t just silence MoveOn​.org but also messages from groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Taxpayers Union, to the Girl Scouts, to Notre Dame, to the firefighters union. I don’t have a clue who’s telling the truth between John Kerry and the Swift boat veterans, but it seems to me a healthy debate to have, especially because Kerry has based his credentials for the presidency on his Vietnam service.

Which brings us to the thorniest and weightiest issue of all: Should the First Amendment protect TV and radio ads that attack or praise the positions of candidates within 60 days of an election? What seems clear is that our Founding Fathers sought above all else to protect political speech when they crafted the First Amendment. These were men who had risked all by criticizing and attacking the injustices of King George III. It seems doubtful they would applaud an interpretation of the Bill of Rights that said: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech — except about candidates just before an election.” It’s mighty depressing to see so many civil libertarians wanting to curtail political speech.

The other day I was walking down a busy street in Washington when an earnest college girl holding a clipboard asked me if I wished to sign up to help John Kerry. I couldn’t help wondering whether John McCain would think that she and the hundreds of thousands of others who are making important in‐​kind contributions to help Bush or Kerry are engaging in a form of unregulated political speech that needs to be curtailed.

Why not keep the process open and unregulated? American voters aren’t stupid. They will sort through the issue ads on TV, radio, the Internet, the telephone, the mail and any other form of communication. And they will make the right informed decision on Nov. 2.

If George Soros wants to spend $100 million of his own money to educate the public about the blunders that Bush has made as president — as he has threatened to do — why muzzle him? Let’s have full disclosure of donations to candidates and political groups and let the voters decide whom to believe.