WASHINGTON -- Presidents swear to ``protect and defend the Constitution.'' The Constitution says: ``Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.'' On April 28, on Don Imus' radio program, discussing the charge that the McCain-Feingold law abridges freedom of speech by regulating the quantity, content and timing of political speech, John McCain did not really reject the charge:
``I work in Washington and I know that money corrupts. And I and a lot of other people were trying to stop that corruption. Obviously, from what we've been seeing lately, we didn't complete the job. But I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government.''
Question: Were McCain to take the presidential oath, what would he mean?
In his words to Imus, note the obvious disparagement he communicates by putting verbal quotation marks around ``First Amendment rights.'' Those nuisances.
Then ponder his implicit promise to ``complete the job'' of cleansing Washington of corruption, as McCain understands that. Unfortunately, although McCain is loquacious about corruption, he is too busy deploring it to define it. Mister Straight Talk is rarely reticent about anything, but is remarkably so about specifics: He says corruption is pandemic among incumbent politicians, yet he has never identified any corrupt fellow senator.
Anyway, he vows to ``complete the job'' of extirpating corruption, regardless of the cost to freedom of speech. Regardless, that is, of how much more the government must supervise political advocacy. President McCain would, it is reasonable to assume, favor increasingly stringent limits on what can be contributed to, or spent by, campaigns. Furthermore, McCain seems to regard unregulated political speech as an inherent invitation to corruption. And he seems to believe that anything done in the name of ``leveling the playing field'' for political competition is immune from First Amendment challenges.
The logic of his doctrine would cause him to put the power of the presidency behind efforts to clamp government controls on Internet advocacy. This is because the speech regulators' impulse is increasingly untethered from concern with corruption. It is extending to regulation in the name of ``fairness.'' Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer, says this about the metastasizing government regulation of campaigns: