Jacob Sullum

 The problem, according to the president, is that people can "just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising." White House spokesman Scott McClellan likewise complains about "negative attacks from these shadowy groups" that are "funded by unregulated soft money."

 Yet it's no mystery who is running these groups, which candidate they want to win, or where their money comes from. We read about these details in the newspaper and hear about them on TV every day. Likewise, claims about Kerry's military service and Bush's National Guard record have been closely scrutinized and vigorously debated.

 One suspects that Bush's problem with 527s is not that they're unaccountable to the public but that they do not answer to him. Although their preferences are obvious, they can still act independently, an ability that is especially important now that McCain-Feingold has silenced traditional advocacy groups at election time.

 For the candidates, this potential for independence is troubling. While the attacks on Kerry's Vietnam service probably helped Bush initially, for instance, there is no way for the president to call them off now that they seem to be backfiring.

 Although FEC Chairman Bradley Smith voted on August 19 to impose new restrictions on 527s beginning in 2005, his response to Kerry's complaint about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth revealed a clearer understanding of what's at stake than either Bush or Kerry has demonstrated. "I think it's great we live in a country where 260 average guys can go out and put their point of view out there before the public and influence a major presidential race," Smith told Bloomberg Television. "I am not one who agrees it is illegitimate for citizens to take a stand on these kind of issues and only the politicians should be able to say what they want about the issues they want to talk about."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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