Jewish World Review August 26, 2004 / 9 Elul, 5764

Collin Levey

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The wink-wink world of campaign-finance laws | Since the allegations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged as the loudest issue in the 2004 election, our political season has become even curiouser than usual. The richest campaigns in history are now preoccupied with condemning the sources of their own largesse. Anyone have a laugh-o-meter?

On Tuesday, Howard Dean — who rejected federal matching funds during the primary — surfaced to charge the Bush administration with criminal behavior based on staffing overlap between the Swift Boat Vets and the Bush campaign. His charge came in the wake of two recent opuses in big-city newspapers "exposing" the web of Republican connections to the group.

Forgive us if we yawn. Anyone who has so much as summered as a campaign volunteer can tell you there is cross-pollination between political campaigns and the advocacy groups that support them. As Kerry himself will attest, some very important and talented workers on his campaign have been hired from groups like, or vice versa (see Jim Jordan and Zach Exley).

Certainly, as we speak, the Kerry campaign is benefiting from the support of groups who fall under the same portion of the tax code as the Swift Boat Vets. In an effort to conserve his portion of federal funds until President Bush also has accepted his party's nomination, Kerry has allowed liberal 527 groups to shoulder the weight of most current political advertising.

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That's not hard, since the spending ledger overwhelmingly favors the Democrats. George Soros alone has donated in the neighborhood of $15 million to groups like MoveOn and the Media Fund. Currently, 17 of the top 20 527s are Democratic groups and the money they have raised easily dwarfs the Republican-leaning groups' coffers.

Not that Bush has any right to complain. The legislation in question is, of course, the McCain-Feingold restrictions that the president weakly signed last year — despite his opposition to them. It should surprise no one that since the law was passed, campaigns have gotten more obnoxious specifically because the candidates can now safely and honestly disavow any connection to the attack ads being funded by the independent groups. Some panacea.

History is littered with stories of well-meaning political philosophies that failed disastrously in real-world application. But the shift in rhetoric in recent weeks is also troubling. The intention of McCain-Feingold's strict rule-making was ostensibly to disrupt the influence of fat-cat donors and lobbyists. The latest complaints have addressed the actual content of the speech itself.

Restrictions on content are not something either party should be applauding. Yes, the 527s are the wink-wink of the new world of campaign finance laws, since they are proscribed by law from directly supporting a candidate. But their excesses bear no resemblance to the big-business lobbying behaviors the last round of campaign-finance restrictions were contrived to address.

Meanwhile, Republicans have lately become the ones sounding like champions of campaign-finance reform. In addition to Bush's harrumph about the 527s, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie grumped in March that the Federal Election Commission's delay on curtailing them "sets the stage for a total meltdown of campaign-finance regulation."

The truth is that Republicans don't like 527s because they generally favor Democrats. Progressives are more at ease in the landscape of activism and have taken full advantage of their status as 527s from an already well-developed infrastructure. There is no Republican corollary with the muscle of the Sierra Club or EMILY's List.

Bush's grudging support of McCain-Feingold probably wasn't completely blind to the fact many initially expected it would give the fund-raising edge to Republicans, who have historically — and contrary to public perception — had broader donations from smaller donors than the typical Democratic candidate.

In the past, a basic sense of decorum (not to mention the fear of how such tactics would reflect on the candidate's own image) kept ads generally within bounds. Self-restraint has suffered from the McCain-Feingold restrictions that prohibit people from entrusting their larger sums of money directly to the candidates.

As long as there are people who care about issues and the political process, politicians will never succeed in banning money from politics. Nor should they: The groups that have lately been portrayed as "shadowy" and suspicious are ultimately nothing more than citizens of varying levels of political sophistication who want a say in the process. Politicians are the last people on Earth who should be allowed to "crack down" and regulate the groups that exist expressly to challenge and defeat them.

The critics of 527s are right — but they have the remedy exactly backwards. The goal isn't for the federal government to single out private citizens' groups for censure — but to encourage political speech that is transparent and accountable.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

08/19/04: Big picture doesn't justify charter-school foes' glee
08/12/04: Getting to the root of the stem-cell debate
08/05/04: This band of brothers has a different view of Kerry
07/30/04: Putting a lid on the loose lips of Teresa Heinz Kerry
07/08/04: Presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professional archetypes
06/25/04: Could Nader help the Dems?
06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey