Observers dismayed by the bitter partisanship of this presidential campaign should be happy now that George W. Bush and John Kerry finally agree on something: It turns out they both believe in using the government to silence their critics.
Kerry has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) demanding the removal of TV ads that question his Vietnam record. He argues that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT), the group sponsoring the ads, is illegally coordinating its activities with the Bush campaign. The Democrats have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation of the group.
Oddly, since Kerry's supporters say SBVT is nothing but a front group for the Republicans, they also demand that Bush "denounce the smear." In response, the president has called for the elimination of all ads sponsored by independent political groups that, like SBVT, are tax-exempt under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code.
Bush pronounced himself amazed that such groups, known as 527s, are still allowed to have their say. "I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill," he told reporters the other day, referring to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which was aimed at preventing freedom of speech from interfering with democracy. "I don't think we ought to have 527s. . . . I think they're bad for the system."
By "the system," of course, Bush means the Republican Party. Bush thought McCain-Feingold, which banned unlimited "soft money" contributions to the parties while raising the limits on regulated "hard money" donations, would help the Republicans, who historically have been more successful at raising hard money. He didn't count on the 527s, which are not explicitly addressed by the law and which Democrats have been using to raise huge wads of cash for anti-Bush ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.
After unsuccessfully urging the FEC to crack down on Kerry-supporting groups such as the Media Fund and America Coming Together, the Republicans belatedly got into the game with their own 527s. But they are still whining that the Democrats have an unfair advantage when it comes to getting rich guys like George Soros and Peter Lewis to open their checkbooks.
Bush said he was "disappointed that for the first . . . six months of this year, 527s were just pouring tons of money -- billionaires writing checks." And what, exactly, is wrong with billionaires writing checks, aside from the fact that the checks were not made out to Republicans? Shouldn't Americans be allowed to spend their money on whatever political cause they like?
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."