Sad day for freedom

Posted: Dec 12, 2003 12:00 AM

On Dec. 10, 2003, freedom took two body blows. The first was the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to permit the limitation of political speech. This is not exotic dancing or flag burning. This is "Vote for Sam Smith" -- the beating heart of our democracy. The Supreme Court has just tied a gag around our mouths, and most of the intellectual class is delighted. Apologists obscure the crude reality of this repression by calling it "campaign finance reform." Well, you can call manure a cow pie, but it still stinks.

The second blow was the death of Robert L. Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, whose death at age 66 leaves the world of ideas a bit wobbly, like losing one leg of a four-legged chair. More on Bartley in a moment.

I'd like to say that it's hard to believe that the Supreme Court would uphold such an obvious assault on liberty as the McCain-Feingold bill. But then, this is the same court that finds "constitutional" justifications for race-based preferences and late-term abortions. These decisions, and many others, are unhinged from anything in the text of the document. Anyone who has not noticed that a majority of the court simply enacts its whims has not been paying attention.

Liberals have howled for three solid years now that in 2000, the conservatives on the court stampeded over the law to place their preferred candidate in the White House. (The truth is that the Democrats had successfully suborned the Florida Supreme Court to flout the law and the U.S. Supreme Court merely stopped them from hijacking the election.) But look carefully at McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission, and what do you find? The conservatives on the court were vehemently opposed to this assault on speech despite the fact that these restrictions will undoubtedly favor incumbents. And who happen to be the majority of incumbents? Republicans.

Justice Scalia spelled it out with his usual verve: "... the present legislation targets for prohibition certain categories of campaign speech that are particularly harmful to incumbents. Is it accidental, do you think, that incumbents raise about three times as much ‘hard money' -- the sort of funding generally not restricted by this legislation -- as do their challengers? Or that lobbyists (who seek the favor of incumbents) give 92 percent of their money in ‘hard' contributions? Is it an oversight, do you suppose, that the so-called ‘millionaire provisions' raise the contribution limit for a candidate running against an individual who devotes to the campaign (as challengers often do) great personal wealth, but do not raise the limit for a candidate running against an individual who devotes to the campaign (as incumbents often do) a massive election ‘war chest'"?

Oh yes, this law will be a boon to incumbents and, at least in the short run, to Republicans. But at no less a price than undermining our liberties. In the land of the free, groups like the Sierra Club and Citizens Against Government Waste will no longer be able to buy advertising within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election that mentions any candidate by name. This is an outrage and a disgrace. What is the First Amendment for if not to permit me, and any group I associate with, to express political views?

No doubt Robert Bartley would have had severe words for this judicial fiasco. I knew him only slightly, so my sense of loss is not personal. But like millions of others over the past 30 years, I have come to revere the editor who made The Wall Street Journal editorial page a font of inspiration. It wasn't just crystalline writing and superb timing. It was also the weight of data Bartley always heaved into our national debates. And very often you would find new and important information on The Wall Street Journal editorial page. About no other paper would you see the phrase "as The Wall Street Journal editorial page reported," but this was commonplace for the Journal.

Though his page was forceful and emphatic, Bartley's personal style was low-key and understated. He wasn't a celebrity, and he wasn't celebrated. He was something better -- important. The Wall Street Journal stood firm for freedom, both economic and political. It launched an intellectual crusade for supply-side economics whose effects are even now improving all of our lives. And it unapologetically asserted that the United States of America was a power for good on the world stage. RIP.