TCS Daily


The Left Catches On

By Ryan H. Sager - May 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Something remarkable is happening as a Republican Congress and president move to crackdown on 527 groups like the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: Liberals are realizing that something's fishy.

Three years after the passage of McCain-Feingold (a.k.a. the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a.k.a. the End of Free Speech As We Know It), a smattering of Democrats and liberal activists are slowly coming to the conclusion that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to let the government decide who can and cannot engage in political speech.

After all, what would prevent incumbents in Congress from passing laws to secure their jobs by making it harder for their opponents to criticize them? And what would prevent a political party -- holding, say, power in both houses of Congress and the White House -- from using election laws to try to smother the opposition?

Right: Nothing.

Such keen, if belated insight, seems to be what motivated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to pen a guest column for the inside-the-beltway political paper Roll Call last Tuesday, warning Democrats that the current round of regulation is a trap.

"This past autumn, special interest groups rushed to South Dakota to attack my record and question my values. Many of their advertisements were harshly negative in substance and tone, and they reflected little respect for fact or substance," Daschle writes of last year's election season, which turned him out of office. "At times like this, in anger and frustration, candidates may wish that Congress could and would outlaw such advertisements. After a season of swift boats, in South Dakota and elsewhere, that wish is powerful, and it is understandable."

Now, why Daschle thinks it's "understandable" that Congress should want to shut up people who criticize congressmen is puzzling, but that's a topic for another day. For now, let's just cue the scary music.

That wish is understandable, he writes, but it is also misplaced. "Those who, like me, have long supported campaign finance reform should keep a wary eye on how those who do not really share our commitment would exploit it for their own partisan purposes," Daschle writes. "Campaign finance regulation should not become the new weapon in the ongoing effort to change the rules -- many and different rules -- to favor and entrench one party's political interest."

Daschle's attempt to cut a fine line between the current assault of 527s and the broader assault on free speech in 2002 leaves his credibility in tatters. Both parties signed onto McCain-Feingold because, at the time, each secretly believed it was getting one over on the other. Democrats held to an outdated notion that their party couldn't compete with the GOP at raising soft money (large, unregulated checks that the bill theoretically eliminated), and they miscalculated. Republicans knew they could raise circles around the Dems when it came to hard money (smaller, regulated checks that the bill left in tact), and they won the lottery. So, everyone was trying to "exploit it for their own partisan purposes," in Daschle's words. The Democrats were just incompetent exploiters.

But that certainly doesn't mean Daschle's wrong about the Republicans' motives. Republicans have poured fewer resources into 527s than have Democrats, assuming that the Federal Election Commission would regulate them into oblivion or that GOP majority in Congress would eventually intervene -- as it's doing now.

And Daschle's not the only one who's noticed.

"Between the Tom DeLay ethics scandals in the House to Bill Frist's 'nuclear' assault on the Senate filibuster, it's really good to be in the Majority," read the blog of Americans Coming Together, a liberal 527 that seems to have caught a whiff of the same scent Daschle caught, earlier this month. "If you don't like the rules, change them."

ACT quotes former Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign manager (now RNC chairman) Ken Mehlman as crediting ACT's turnout prowess with helping keep Kerry within 119,000 Ohio votes of winning and with the ability to keep future Democrats within striking range. "Clearly," the blog says, "they do, indeed, take us seriously."

It continues, appealing to the group's supporters: "It's easy to point to an example like the Swift Boat Veterans' attack ads as something we can all agree is unseemly. But this legislation is not really about 'cleaning up politics' as they say. There's more to it ... This bill is about silencing your progressive voice. Please don't let that happen."

Of course, campaign-finance reform was never about cleaning up politics -- it was always just politics by other means. But it's nice to hear someone other than the usual right-wingers say it.

Now, if only the usual right-wingers and the newly street-smart left-wingers could make common cause and get together and take Tom Daschle's advice. It could just be the first major setback for the campaign-finance lobby in a long, long time.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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