Will McCain-Feingold backfire on liberals?

By Richard A. Viguerie and Steve J. Allen
web posted April 9, 2001

Conservatives oppose McCain-Feingold because they appreciate the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press to their survival as a movement. They see themselves as a majority among Americans but a minority among the political class that writes the laws. They are constantly on guard against efforts by the Washington establishment and the news media to silence them. Also, they can read.

"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." What part of "no law" do McCain-Feingold proponents not understand? How do they reconcile that section of the First Amendment with their proposal, which would restrict people's right to join together and criticize elected officials immediately prior to an election?

Here's how: "What we have is two important values in direct conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy." Those are the words of House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, who favors "healthy" campaigns over the less-important Bill of Rights.

Gephardt's not alone in his thinking. In 1997, 38 U.S. Senators voted to amend -- partially repeal -- the First Amendment, in the name of campaign finance reform.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses a news conference in the Senate radio and television gallery at the Capitol as Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., smiles after their McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed a Senate vote 59-41 on April 2.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses a news conference in the Senate radio and television gallery at the Capitol as Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., smiles after their McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed a Senate vote 59-41 on April 2.

The threat to our freedoms is real, the prospect for real reform illusory. McCain-Feingold, it appears, is every liberal Democrat's dream -- a "reform" that gives them a big advantage. So McCain-Feingold would be a disaster for conservatives and a historic triumph for liberals -- right?

Maybe not.

President Bush, who opposed McCain-Feingold during the campaign, now says he'll probably sign it. For liberals and Democrats, it was easy to back McCain-Feingold, which the media labeled "reform," when the proposal had little chance of passage. Now they are feeling the short hairs rise at the napes of their necks. Is it possible they made a mistake in backing the proposal?

Every reform has unintended consequences. What, liberals are beginning to wonder, will be the unintended consequences of McCain-Feingold? McCain said he doesn't care about the prospect of unintended consequences: "So what! . . . There is no perfect reform." But that's easy for him to say; he's a Republican.

What will McCain-Feingold mean if -- as almost every analyst predicts -- the section restricting advocacy groups is struck down in court? As Jacon Weisberg of Slate magazine notes, "if you took soft money out of the equation, the short-term advantage would accrue to the Republicans." The Republican Party has a three-to-two advantage over Democrats in hard money; George W. Bush raised $100 million for the primaries in amounts of $1000 or less. That advantage would likely grow if the parties and their allied groups were forced to concentrate more of their resources on raising money from millions of small donors.

Ah, you say, we're just whistling past the graveyard. Given that passage of McCain-Feingold seems inevitable, we're looking desperately for a silver lining, and we've deluded ourselves into believing that it will backfire on liberals. If that's what you think, consider what we wrote 16 years ago about the last major change in the campaign finance system.

In the May 1985 issue of Conservative Digest magazine, we described how the Watergate scandal had decimated the GOP and made possible the rise of a new generation of conservative leaders. "But," we wrote, "credit for the birth of the new conservative movement must be shared with the liberals themselves, who provided us with the tools we needed to challenge and eventually topple them. They passed laws limiting the amount of money that individuals could contribute to political campaigns. They thought that, under those laws, Republicans and conservatives would have a hard time raising money for campaigns, while liberals would prosper, their coffers full of money from government grants and from union members' involuntary contributions.

"Boy, were they wrong! Liberals continued to collect money from their usual sources, but they were unable to adapt to the new rules. Using techniques partly developed by The Viguerie Company, conservative organizations (and the Republican Party itself) built a nationwide network of millions of small contributors -- people concerned about taxes, crime, defense, education, abortion, and scores of issues that the political establishment had been unwilling to address. While conservatives became more and more populist, liberals became the captives of special interest groups. By 1980, elitist liberalism was reeling from the attacks of the new conservatives, and Ronald Reagan that November knocked it to the canvas."

Since we wrote those words, liberals have developed their own lists of small contributors and their own technology for getting their message out and raising money through direct mail. But liberal organizations still rely heavily on involuntary contributions -- government grants and contracts paid for by taxpayers and dues money taken from union members.

It's been more than a quarter century since liberals and Democrats wrote the current campaign finance laws, the laws that created today's conservative movement and made possible the election of Ronald Reagan and ultimately George W. Bush. So perhaps we're due for another round of "reform."

But forgive us if we chuckle as they change the campaign finance laws, to make it harder for the political parties to raise big money, to create a vacuum that will be filled by the recruitment of millions more small contributors.

You see, today's conservative movement was born and bred in that briar patch.

Richard A. Viguerie is the president of ConservativeHQ.com while Steve J. Allen serves as special assistant to the president.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • McCain-Feingold First Amendment reform by W. James Antle III (April 9, 2001)
    John McCain is right, there is something broken with the current system, but W. James Antle III says his campaign finance reform efforts aren't the solution
  • Does McCain have a plan? by Paul M. Weyrich (March 5, 2001)
    Remember, the stake goes into the heart. Paul Weyrich wonders what Sen. John McCain is trying to do...besides prepare himself for 2004

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