October 17, 2007
The Silver Lining Behind the McCain/Feingold CloudBy Gregory A. Collins
The McCain-Feingold Act is almost universally despised by conservatives. But the unintended consequences of this far-reaching act seem to benefit both the right and the national debate.
It has been a month since the New York Times printed MoveOn.org's ad which attacked General Petraeus as "General Betray Us." The ad backfired on the left to a degree that it is still reverberating. Closer analysis reveals the ad is an informative illustration of our post-McCain-Feingold political realm.The McCain-Feingold bill, also called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, was passed in 2002. The primary purpose of the act was to reduce the influence that money and special interest groups had on politics. It received bipartisan support because Republicans were looking to limit the power of labor unions to support Democrats and Democrats were interested in limiting the power of corporations to support Republicans. At the end of the day, both sides could then claim to have reformed our campaign system.
The bill's most controversial component was the restriction it placed on political advertising that named specific candidates in the closing days of primaries and general elections. Far less controversial was its elimination of "soft" money (money that could be donated in unlimited amounts for so-called ‘party-building' activities) that had become notorious in the 1990s, in part because of the Clinton Administration's discomforting willingness to do almost anything to gather it. This soft-money restriction did the most to shape post-McCain-Feingold campaigns, but in ways probably not imagined by designers of the law.
Prior to McCain-Feingold, the enormous sums of soft-money that poured into campaigns were controlled by each party's respective high-command. These consisted of experienced politicians and highly-paid political consultants. Each party's mission in the campaign was to obtain votes, not to generate a national conversation. In fact, controversy and debate were actively avoided, as they might reveal a candidate's actual beliefs (or lack thereof), which in turn could alienate at least one segment a significant voting block. The campaigns spent vast sums on ads carefully engineered to avoid tough issues. Indeed, these ads were heavily influenced by prior focus group analysis to assure that they offended as few voters as possible.
A genuine dialogue regarding important issues characterized by the clash of differing opinion -- certainly an ideal of a democratic society -- was avoided to the greatest extent possible.
Once the parties were prohibited from raising soft-money, big donors sent their money to 527s (so named for the area of the tax code under which they exist) which by law cannot have operational ties to political parties. These 527s were organized and led by true-believers committed to voicing their often radical messages to America. Money previously spent eradicating controversy was now busy bankrolling it.
For instance, MoveOn.org during the 2004 election directly attacked Pres. Bush with ads that assailed not only his record on Iraq, but also his service in the National Guard and his failure to prevent 9/11. The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth aggressively challenged John Kerry's military service in a way that Republican campaign consultants never would have recommended.
The unintended consequence of McCain-Feingold was that the 2004 campaign saw a refreshing, even bracing variety of important issues thrust into the spotlight rather than deliberately obfuscated or concealed.
Ironically McCain-Feingold turned up the volume of debate so much that it was frequently misinterpreted by the mainstream press as symptomatic of America being "more divided then ever." In fact, what had happened was that the new law provided a voice for opinions that were always there, but had never been in a spotlight. America had grown so used to the stale, scripted, image-intensive but debate-and-controversy-free campaigns of the 1980s and 90s, that the newfound open clash of opinion that resulted from McCain-Feingold was novel and took the mainstream media by surprise.
To date, conservatives appear to have benefited the most from these unintended consequences of McCain-Feingold. Over the past five years, the most prominent 527s on both sides developed their own peculiar identities. 527s on the left are mostly organized by young, militant liberals who generally appear more shrill, extreme and self-righteous than their counterparts on the right. The biggest 527 failure to date, America Coming Together (ACT), was a centerpiece of the left's 2004 campaign strategy. ACT employed more than four thousand campaign staff and ten times as many paid canvassers in key swing states to help elect left-leaning candidates, and, most importantly, to defeat George W. Bush. Now ACT is almost entirely defunct and apparently operates only to pay out six-figure FEC fines related to its '04 campaign activities.
The "Betray Us" ad, whose tone and content was more suited for a Yearly Kos convention than a national newspaper, illustrated the type of speech generated by left leaning 527s. While the future course of America in Iraq is certainly worthy of serious national discussion and debate, the tone of this ad, with its personal attack on General Petraeus, has become a clear liability for the Democrats in Congress opposed to the current war effort.
In contrast, 527 organizations on the right generally represent the opinions of older, conservative individuals from middle America. For instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was organized by Vietnam combat veterans who served with Kerry. Not surprisingly, 527s on the right speak with a voice that, while issue oriented, is generally less shrill and confrontational.
Conservative 527s not only connect better with Americans, their words fill a far greater speech vacuum. The liberal press tends to highlight negative conflict among Republicans while downplaying it among Democrats. The ill-fated 60 Minutes episode on Pres. Bush's Texas Air National Guard service in the final months of the 2004 election is just one of many examples of this tendency. The Swift Boat Vets, meanwhile, were better off waiting for Godot than for Dan Rather to listen to their side of John Kerry's Vietnam narrative, and thus they depended upon their 527 status to grab the nation's attention with respect to John Kerry's Vietnam War experience.
It's not to say that today campaigns are no longer scripted and controversy-free. Hillary Clinton's recent appearances on Sunday morning talk shows provides a good example of how it continues. Each answer she gave to the tougher questions was a prime example of pre-McCain-Feingold politics, as she deftly sidestepped important issues, left her true beliefs unclear, and failed to fill in critical details. This type of politics, however, is on its way out. Her elusive style leaves her vulnerable to charges that she isn't tough enough to hold solid positions, a point which 527s almost certainly will address head-on as we roll toward November 2008.
The conventional campaign response to attacks is to ignore them in order to not lend them more credibility. However, not addressing 527 attacks can be fatal: just ask John Kerry, whose strategy of ignoring rather than specifically responding to the Swift Boat accusations did irreparable harm to his campaign.
There is a continuous and principled call for the repeal of McCain-Feingold, based on its free speech restrictions. But the unforeseen benefits of this legislation may outweigh its liabilities. It is through the clash of differing ideas that a better understanding of the issues can come about. More genuine political discussion is taking place after McCain-Feingold than before.
Smooth and cowardly political operatives influenced by vacuous and bland focus group-generated opinions no longer act as the gatekeepers for campaign speech. Instead, the real gatekeepers are the issue-oriented sponsors of 527s, now much better financed as a result of McCain-Feingold, who are voicing their opinions on legitimate if not difficult political issues. McCain-Feingold legislation, by empowering 527s, has had the unintended but favorable consequence of strengthening our right to free speech and promoting legitimate discussion, the very essence of a vigorous, healthy democracy.
Gregory A. Collins is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and former officer in the United States Army. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.