George Will

Is he wise? As a senator he insistently advocated increasing the government's regulation of politics. One of the only four senators who supported John McCain's candidacy in 2000, Thompson argued for the McCain-Feingold legislation that regulates the content, timing and amount of political speech.

In 1996, Thompson worked successfully, unfortunately, to preserve the (currently collapsing) system of public financing of presidential campaigns. His arguments were replete with all the rhetoric standard among advocates of government regulation of political speech: Government regulation of politics is necessary to dispel "cynicism" about government (has that worked?), and to create a "level playing field," and to prevent politics from being "awash with money" (Congressional Record, May 20, 1996).

In a press release that day he warned of money from "special interests" and asserted that the checkoff system "flat out worked" because in 1994, 24 million taxpayers checked the "yes" box on their 1040 form, thereby directing that $3 of their income tax bill go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. He asserted that "on average, 20 percent of Americans participate in the checkoff." Well.

In 1994, according to the IRS, the checkoff was used on 16.3 million, or 14 percent, of the 114.8 million individual tax returns, so a landslide of 86 percent of forms were filed by taxpayers who rejected participation. Today, use of the checkoff has sunk to just 9.6 percent. Its unpopularity is unsurprising, given that it has allowed a small minority to divert, in a bookkeeping dodge, $1.3 billion of federal revenues to fund the dissemination of political views that many taxpayers disapprove of as much as they disapprove of public funding of politics.

Back then, Thompson believed, implausibly, that voters are "deeply concerned" about campaign finance reform. Today, many likely voters in Republican primaries are deeply concerned about what Thompson and others have done to free speech in the name of "reform," as John McCain is unhappily learning.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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