From The Cato Institute, A Free Speech Kind of Thing By John Samples
This article appeared on Spectator.org, December 15, 2005.
Eugene McCarthy’s campaign depended on two factors, shifting public opinion and money. Public support for the Vietnam War remained strong for a longer time than we now remember. Only in the fall of 1968 were a majority of Americans willing to say that the Vietnam effort had been a mistake.
McCarthy sensed that his campaign could represent an emerging public sentiment against the war. But to enter the race for the presidency, he needed more than a message, more even than the volunteers that flocked to him that spring.
McCarthy needed money to finance his campaign. He got it. McCarthy received several six-figure donations from affluent individuals deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam. Herbert Alexander, a leading campaign finance expert, estimates that about one-third of McCarthy’s total fundraising in 1968 came from just 50 large donors. David Hoeh, the organizer of McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign, recalled later that a single “financial angel” saved their media effort at a crucial point.
In our time the men who supported McCarthy’s 1968 effort would be liable for the crime of contributing too much money to a political campaign. Not surprisingly we have many fewer upstart campaigns like McCarthy’s and 98 percent of incumbents win their bids to be re-elected to Congress.
McCarthy himself believed that campaign finance restrictions complicated the lives of candidates and their supporters, increased the influence of special interests, and ultimately made lawbreakers out of people seeking to exercise their right to political association. Most of such laws, he said, violated the Constitution while upholding the privileged status of the major parties. His opposition to campaign finance law was, he explained near the end of his life, a “free speech kind of thing.”
Campaign Finance Reform attempts to reduce the influence of money on elections, but it ends up reducing the power to challenge the status quo. To contend that these laws are necessary to protect government or collective interests should give liberals a pause. The first amendment was never intended to protect government interests.
Citizens United also centered on first amendment and many believe it was decided largely on the Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart’s assertion that the Government had the right to ban books that “that contained express advocacy if an incorporated entity was involved.”
In its effort to protect us from the negative influence of too much money, the result has been to protect the two entrenched political parties from disruptive challengers from both within its ranks and from out side the tent. Perhaps this is why the Republicans and Democrats have agreed on past campaign finance reforms. Bipartisanship alone does not always make for a worthy outcome.
The recent McCutcheon v. FEC ruling has solicited the same reaction as Citizens United. Even though the per candidate limit was retained the court removed the total limit in an election cycle.
The reaction is predicated on two myths about money in politics.
The first myth is that money is the only source of power. One result of the campaign finance laws is the number of super wealthy who have run. Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and some occasional rumblings from Donald Trump did not succeed even with their enormous wealth. There are other sources of power such as the institutional strength of the established parties, unions and PACS.
The second myth is the belief that big money favors conservative causes, Both Eugene McCarthy and Obama have proven otherwise. 7 out of 10 of the wealthiest Congressmen are Democrats. For every Koch there is a Soros.
If we really want Hope and Change we should not short change the means to achieve it. The court ruled in favor of individual first amendment rights over entrenched government interests.
A true liberal, Like Eugene McCarthy, would have agreed.