Campaign Finance Reform Does Not Equal Censorship

Super PACs and Their Destructive and Divisive Domination of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

The 2012 Presidential Campaign Debate Should Be About The Future, Not Bain Capital

I would like to respond to my esteemed colleague, Mr. Taranto, who has criticized my recent blog post on Super PACS, and particularly on the aborted ad campaign linking President Obama to Reverend Wright.

My piece makes the case that the recent controversy over Joe Ricketts’s proposed ad campaign is symptomatic of how Super PACS perniciously affect elections and highlights the need for serious reform of the process. Mr. Taranto responded by writing that I support something I do not—content-based censorship. As evidence, he points to my blog post in question, and an earlier one, where I also bemoan the influence that Super PACS could have on the electoral process and have already had on the Republican primaries.

In my earlier posting, I made no references to the content of any advertisements, neither lauding them, attacking them, or even describing them. I simply pointed out the growing influence of Super PACs and specifically the impact of a small group of individuals, frequently undisclosed, who sponsor these ads. I urge readers to read the post and decide for themselves whether there is anything in what I wrote that argues for content-based censorship.

Nor in my more recent piece do I make any calls for the government to censor or otherwise interfere with the content of politicalads. As an individual commentator, it is my considered opinion that the ads are inappropriate and wrong, and as a political analyst I feel strongly that many of these ads are indicative of how Super PACs poison our public dialogue.

The now-abandoned, Joe Ricketts-sponsored ad campaign against Obama is a case in point. I think there would be some truth to Mr. Taranto’s remarks—that President Obama’s associations with men like Jeremiah Wright give “reason to doubt the sincerity of” some of his publically stated beliefs—if this was 2008. But Obama has been president for three and a half years now, and his record bears no evidence of any attempts to divide Americans based on race or religion. In 2012, concerns about Reverend Wright’s influence on the president are baseless—and as such, attacks focused on Rev. Wright have no place in the public arena. They serve no constructive purpose. They can only inflame.

That said, however, I have never advocated censorship of political speech or suggested that the FEC should ban ads for any reason, and I think that Mr. Taranto has mischaracterized my position.

What I do say is this: Super PACs have too much influence on our political campaigns. This is hardly a radical contention. I believe that our campaign-finance laws must be fundamentally reworked. Limiting expenditures or donations, or opening the disclosure process, in no way violates the first amendment or implies government censorship. I hold Mr. Taranto in far too high esteem to think that he would believe I’m arguing for such things. He has taken my views beyond their logical conclusion. Let me clarify them.

At the core of Mr. Taranto’s objections is the belief–fairly common among many conservative thinkers and writers– that campaign finance restrictions amount to censorship. I strongly disagree with the idea that any campaign finance restrictions violate the First Amendment i Surely, reasonable people can agree that there are compelling state interests involved in elections, and that safeguarding the integrity of our democratic process could require setting limits on what can be donated and imposing a more transparent disclosure process.

It is important to note, too, that as distasteful and harmful as Super PACs and their affects are, under the precedent set by Citizens United and current law, they are perfectly legal and constitutional. As things stand, they operate completely within the law, and their backers and organizers have done nothing illegal. This is what makes them so powerful and so dangerous.

I propose remedying the situation by simultaneously pursuing a constitutional amendment and reforms on both a state and federal level.

A constitutional amendment is obviously the most comprehensive approach. As I am not a constitutional scholar, I will not deign to offer any specific language for an amendment. But I would be supportive of something that affirmed Congress’ power to clamp down on outside spending and protect our elections from moneyed interests. Of course, our right to free political speech is paramount, and any amendment language would have to be crafted narrowly and carefully.