For now, the Federal Election Commission doesn’t have YouTube entirely in its officious grasp, and that’s a wonderful thing. It helps make the video-sharing website a robustly unregulated — and thus invaluable — political marketplace.
It’s no accident that the most memorable political advertisement in recent years was posted anonymously on YouTube, the famous 1984-themed anti-Hillary Clinton ad. A takeoff on an Apple Computer Super Bowl ad, the spot featured a woman in a Barack Obama T-shirt throwing a sledgehammer at a video screen filled with an ominous Hillary. The sledgehammer could just as well have been aimed at all the regulators, politicians, media pooh-bahs and professional hand-wringers who perennially worry that the political debate is too “uncontrolled” and set out to better control it.
This was the conceit of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform legislation that cracked down on “electioneering communications” by unions and other incorporated entities. They were forbidden from running broadcast ads mentioning candidates for federal office 60 days before an election, because such ads could — gasp — influence an election. The gatekeepers weren’t going to allow it.
Fortunately, in a large, restless and boisterous country, people will always exploit the lacunae in any scheme meant to regulate political debate. In 2004, it was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who used a so-called 527 committee — exploiting a loophole in McCain-Feingold — to take money from a few wealthy donors to fund ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam record.
The Swift Boat vets existed outside any of the established channels of political communication and, because of that, were able to bring important information to the debate. No media organizations were going to examine critically Kerry’s war exploits or highlight his congressional testimony slamming his fellow vets. The Bush campaign wasn’t going to do it because it would be deemed “too negative,” and President Bush, not having served in Vietnam, was in no position to criticize Kerry. Enter the Swift Boat vets.
The anti-Hillary ad similarly said things no one else would say. No other candidate was going to air an ad comparing Hillary to Big Brother, but the ad captured things about Hillary that many people feel, or it wouldn’t have had such resonance: that she is relentlessly calculating and anodyne, and that her front-runner campaign built on inevitability has a Nurse Ratched quality to it — you will vote for me, and you will enjoy it.
Other anonymously posted clips on YouTube in recent months have provided indispensable negative information about the candidates. There’s the pro-life convert Mitt Romney, for instance, slickly defending his pro-choice position on abortion a few years ago. Surely, the Romney camp would prefer that clip were long forgotten, while no rival campaign would ever want to own up to posting it. The very anonymity of the process makes it possible.
The 1984 ad has prompted a bout of worry from the media and political professionals. Campaigns, we are told, are running out of anyone’s control, as if this is a bad thing. Since when do we want our politics “controlled” by anyone? Anyone, anywhere, the worriers say, can post negative material about candidates. So what? Positive ads are often as misleading as negative ones. This is a point implicitly made by someone who posted on YouTube a Rudy Giuliani ad from his 1993 mayoral campaign that depicted him, in sickeningly gauzy terms, as an utterly devoted family man. How’s that for dishonest advertising?
Yes, there is plenty of vile and false material on the Internet. And things aren’t always what they seem — the anti-Hillary spot was created by a professional employed by a firm that was on contract with Obama. But the public can be trusted to separate the wheat from the chaff, which is its proper role in an open society. The hand-wringers look at the 1984 ad and see an awful trend, potentially dragging down our politics. Instead, they should see freedom. Get over it.