The Terrible Secret of Campaign Finance Reform

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

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

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

However that may be, no one disputes that the NAACP had the right to raisethe money and buy the broadcast time to make their case against theRepublican presidential candidate. That right is founded in the FirstAmendment. The Supreme Court has said that groups like the NAACP that urgetheir fellow citizens to vote for or against a candidate for office may notbe restricted by election laws.

McCain disputes that right. Calling the NAACP a “special interest,” McCaintold “Hardball” host Chris Matthews that his new law would have preventedthe NAACP’s independent ad campaign during the 2000 election. Implicitly,McCain was saying that his new law would keep the NAACP – and many othergroups – 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 theJames Byrd ad was unfair to George W. Bush. Reasonable people, however,should agree that the best antidote to abuses of freedom of speech by anyoneat any time is more speech— not laws and regulations banning politicalexpression. Our Constitution errs on the side of freedom in matters ofpolitical speech and debate.

McCain was also overlooking the benefits of the NAACP’s participation inelection 2000. Their ads mobilized and informed African-American voterswhile stimulating public debate and private reflections. The NAACP’s effortsled to higher turnout than expected among African-Americans in severalstates. It’s also a good thing for the nation that a group so long excludedfrom 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 posedby McCain’s restrictions on political participation. Some members of theCongressional Black Caucus (CBC) are worried that McCain’s bill will reducevoter registration and education.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), a member of the CBC analyzing McCain’sbill, said there was not "a lot of excitement in the caucus for campaignfinance reform." If McCain’s comments about the NAACP become more widelyknown, it’s hard to see why any African-American member of Congress shouldsupport the bill.

Americans have a right to speak out on politics. McCain clearly hopes hiscampaign finance bill would prevent the NAACP from speaking out duringelections. That aspiration alone should be enough to doom McCain’s shockingassault on the liberties of the American people.