John Edwards, the Media, and Campaign Finance
Do reporters care about the politician, or furthering their narratives?


Stephen M. Hoersting

An interesting thing about the case is that federal law also prohibits converting campaign funds to the “personal use” of any person, but the government did not charge Edwards with knowingly and willfully converting campaign funds to his or Hunter’s personal use. The reason is simple: The government does not want to highlight the personal nature of the disbursements used to hide Hunter because it bolsters Edwards’s defense that the funds were never campaign funds.

If the donor in question, centenarian Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, listed the funds she claims were gifts as “gifts” on her 2007 IRS Form 709, the government’s case is all but over. Throw in the fact that a criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards knew where the line was drawn between legal gifts and illegal campaign contributions, and then willfully violated it, and you begin to see the government’s problem.

The government is counting on the seamy optics of a personal affair to win a campaign-finance conviction. Good men and women have been convicted on less. But if campaign-finance violations are the allegation, the seamy nature of the disbursements should acquit Edwards, not convict him.

Some are asking why Edwards, a multimillionaire, wasn’t smart enough to hide Rielle Hunter on his own dime: Surely that would have prevented potential campaign-finance problems. The answer affirms Edwards’s case: If he had tapped his personal accounts to shuttle Hunter around, his wife, Elizabeth, would have found out — even as his campaign might have continued.

John Edwards is a true-blue Democrat. The press has declined to make an issue of Democrats’ mistresses and campaign violations before. The DOJ could have settled this case quietly. Why push so hard? 

Perhaps it is because reformers and reporters don’t really care about Edwards in 2011; they care about reelection for Obama — just as mainstream reporters appear not to have cared enough to pursue Edwards’s indiscretions in 2007 because of his value as a buffer to Obama. 

Barack Obama won the primary and later defeated John McCain, but it is he, not McCain, who is the McCain-Feingold president. Mr. Obama is the confluence of the JournoLists who would not vet him and opponents forbidden to advertise against him. 

But the Supreme Court has corrected much of the McCain-Feingold law, with the latest correction coming from the 2010 Citizens United opinion. The press has seen what happened to congressional Democrats in the November election. It understands what can happen to Mr. Obama if campaign restrictions aren’t restored for 2012.

That is why we read fond accounts of the failed DISCLOSE Act, of the president’s draft executive order on contractor disclosure, and of the suit filed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) against the Federal Election Commission, and why we see send-ups of the Supreme Court on The Colbert Report.

The Edwards indictment and its coverage may be the makings of a second narrative useful to Obama, this time aimed at Republican donors feeling their oats after the Citizens United opinion: Campaign-finance violations still loom large in 2012.

— Stephen M. Hoersting is a campaign-finance attorney and co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics.


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