Public campaign financing undermines free speech

In recent weeks proponents of campaign finance and speech regulation have ratcheted up their dismay over the demise of the presidential government financing system. These self-styled “reformers” apparently lament the fact that more people than ever are actively engaging in politics by contributing to a presidential candidate of their choice.

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Instead of bemoaning the record-setting fundraising by presidential candidates, we ought to celebrate the return of well-funded campaigns with the resources to communicate their message to voters. In fact, those looking for a reason behind the impending death of the current system need look no further than the inherent foolishness of government trying to regulate and limit political speech.

A revived government-subsidy program, like the current program, would still require capping the amount of money candidates are allowed to spend disseminating their message. These caps are the very reason why candidates who opt in to the system are considered all but dead. Political operatives know that spending limits severely restrict a candidate’s ability to communicate with voters. Even increasing the current caps to a higher level will not solve the problem. Government should not be the one in charge of deciding when voters have “heard enough.”

Worse yet, appeals for a revived government-financing system are invariably and necessarily coupled with calls for greater suppression of independent speech. Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), less than two weeks ago, urged the elimination of some vehicles for independent speech. McCain said 527 organizations are “a disgrace and need to be eliminated.” Other “reformers” have joined with McCain in repeatedly calling for greater suppression of these independent advocacy groups.

But citizen groups, like newspaper editorial pages and radio and television commentators, have the right to speak out about issues and candidates. Both 527s and campaign contributions allow all citizens — not just those with the good fortune of having a “press exemption” — to participate in and help shape the political debate.

Fortunately, despite the current efforts of the “reformers,” we still have a First Amendment that nominally protects independent speech. So a candidate who accepts government funding, and the subsequent spending limits, would have to hope that there are enough independent voices willing to advance her message to offset the independent voices speaking for her opponent.

Some “reformers” try to highlight past presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to demonstrate the “success” of the government-financing system. They try to suggest that the system that brought us these presidents must be worthy of being saved. This is faulty reasoning that assumes that without government funding these candidates never would have run for office.

The thought that a Reagan candidacy and presidency was only made possible because of the government-financing system ignores all logic. Reagan was well known nationally after his movie career, his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the famous nationally televised speech on behalf of Goldwater in 1964, his eight years as governor of California (the campaigns for which were funded in large part by big contributions), and his unsuccessful challenge of President Ford in ’76. Without the government-financed system, it seems a fair bet that Reagan would have been able to easily raise enough money from private contributors to run his campaign.

More importantly, one wonders whose voice isn’t being heard because the present system severely limits a candidate’s ability to raise enough money get his message out.

“Clean Gene” McCarthy was able to accept six-figure contributions in 1968 when he challenged LBJ. Who are the Gene McCarthys of today, candidates who don’t have the political connections and backing of powerful interest groups, but could turn to civic-minded individuals willing to contribute large sums in order to give the candidate a chance to get their message out?

The fact that there is no opportunity for another “Clean Gene”-type candidacy is evident to Gregory Chase and presidential candidate Mike Gravel. Chase, a 27-year-old hedge fund manager, is funding independent advertisements touting Gravel’s campaign and call for significantly increasing the gas tax, one of Gravel’s main issues. Chase told the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, “This guy needs help, and I’m going to make it happen … it’s something I believe in, and it’s the best use of money I can think of.”

The experience of Chase and Gravel exemplify all that is wrong with the current system as well as the misguided efforts to “reform” it. Chase would best be able to help Gravel’s candidacy by directly giving to the candidate. Instead, the “reformers’” wish they could crack down on Chase’s independent expenditures if Chase dared to pool his resources with other Gravel supporters.

More than three decades of suppressing political speech has done nothing to benefit our political system. Instead of reviving the presidential public financing system, its time to consider abolishing it and returning to First Amendment principles.

Parnell is president of the Center for Competitive Politics, based in Arlington, Va.