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Bush gambled and lost on "campaign finance reform"

By Scott Tibbs, December 16, 2003

"I also have reservations about the constitutionality of the broad ban on issue advertising, which restrains the speech of a wide variety of groups on issues of public import in the months closest to an election. I expect that the courts will resolve these legitimate legal questions as appropriate under the law." -- President Bush.

With those words, President George W. Bush signed into law the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" bill. One has to wonder why a President would sign into law something he apparently believes is unconstitutional. With the stroke of a pen, President Bush knowingly broke the oath he took to uphold the Constitution, doing more damage to the Constitution than Osama bin Laden's thugs could have hoped to do on September 11, 2001. Those Senators and Representatives who believe McCain-Feingold is within the limits the Constitution places on Congress can at least be excused for their ignorance. Bush has no such excuse.

President Bush gambled that the Supreme Court would at least overturn the pernicious assault on freedom embedded in McCain-Feingold's limitation on "issue ads" that mention a federal candidate's name 60 days before an election, and he lost. Make no mistake about it: no matter what five "justices" on the Supreme Court say, McCain-Feingold is unconstitutional. The First Amendment clearly states "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." What exactly is difficult to understand about these words? Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It seems pretty clear to me.

It is shocking that the Supreme Court upheld the provision in McCain-Feingold that regulated the content of political speech by limiting so-called "issue ads". Even if one could justify new limitations on campaign contributions, this one should be a no-brainer. Yes, there are already moves underway to get around the new law. But just because this law has loopholes does not mean that signing it (or voting for it) is excusable. New groups are being formed that are exempt from the law and the National Rifle Association is asking the courts to classify it as a media outlet, exempting it from McCain-Feingold.

This, of course, brings up an interesting point. A columnist, newspaper editorial writer, or commentator on radio or television can lambaste or praise any candidate as much as he or she wants and not run afoul of McCain-Feingold. I can submit a column or a letter to the editor to the Herald-Times attacking Congressman Baron Hill for his "pro-choice" stand on abortion, and if the H-T decides to run that letter or column I am within the bounds of McCain-Feingold. But if Indiana Right to Life were to instead take out an advertisement in the newspaper saying the exact same thing, they would be in violation of the law.

The beauty of political advertisements is it allows interest groups to speak directly to the people, without their message being filtered through the news media. If that advertisement contains information that in inaccurate or slanted, the other side has an opportunity to buy their own advertisement and respond. But a majority of both the House and Senate voted to short-circuit this free speech, complaining about "negative ads". If nothing else, this should have been a red flag for the American people and the courts, as incumbents try to limit the ability of the American people to publicly criticize them, something the Libertarian Party also noticed.

As Jonah Goldberg pointed out on National Review, the core purpose of the First Amendment's protection of free speech was to cement the right to criticize the government. Free speech is a fundamental right, because it is the first line of defense against government intrusions into our other rights.

George W. Bush's support for censorship of political speech is going to make it very difficult for me to vote for him next November. While I can cast a protest vote for a third party candidate knowing that Bush will win Indiana easily, I am not sure I could vote for Bush even if my state's electoral votes were up for grabs. Republicans have to ask ourselves how much we are going to have to lower our standards to keep the Democrats out of power. Bush proclaims himself to be a Republican. Isn't it time for conservatives to ask him to act like one?