In the early Seventies, before he entered politics, Mitch McConnell was a young and unknown Kentucky lawyer. To help pay the bills, he taught night courses at the University of Louisville. In 1974, Watergate was not officially part of his civics curriculum, he recalls, but the congressional response to the Nixon scandal featured heavily in class discussions.
From afar, McConnell’s students debated the passage of amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which established new disclosure rules and spending limits. Many of the undergraduates were initially supportive of the measures, because of their anger toward Nixon, but after McConnell brought the First Amendment implications to their attention, a few of them switched their position.
Ever since, McConnell has continued to make a professorial case about the importance of deregulating political spending. As the elected leader of Senate Republicans, he wears many hats, but on a personal level, no issue has shaped his career more than the intersection of campaign financing and free speech. Late last week, he made two major addresses on the subject, first at the American Enterprise Institute and soon after at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference.
McConnell’s multi-decade pushback against campaign-finance reformers — including members of the Senate GOP conference, such as John McCain — has not always been popular, he acknowledges. But as the Obama administration attempts to “micromanage” political speech, he says, his efforts are more than a pet project — they’re critical for every political group, conservative or liberal, that wants to speak up without Big Brother calling the shots.
“This is an issue that’s hard to explain,” McConnell tells me. “Whenever you start to make the argument, people accuse you of being in favor of corruption, all the usual stuff. Many of my colleagues want to stay ten miles away from an issue like that.” But, he says, if conservatives who care about the Constitution do not actively defend the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the president and his allies will do whatever they can to delegitimize it.
Or at the very least, McConnell says, Obama and his allies will keep shaming Americans who support conservative causes. Blocking the DISCLOSE Act, a bill which would have expanded disclosure requirements for donations to political groups, was a good start, he says, but Democrats’ thirst for exposing conservative donors remains strong. Obama-friendly organizations such as Media Matters, he notes, frequently use “thuggish” tactics to pressure private citizens.
McConnell underscored that threat in his AEI talk, citing Nixon, the man who got him interested in the issue 40 years ago. He compared Obama’s eagerness to bully organizations that disagree with him to the Nixon White House, right down to an “an old-school enemies list.” Obama’s obsession with the Koch brothers, he said, is not only a crass political strategy, but a dangous one: He noted that after Obama’s campaign manager sent an e-mail to supporters about a Koch-backed event, Koch employees were “threatened and harassed by left-wing groups.”
Even more appalling, McConnell added, is the way Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, views the Constitution. Last week, Axelrod told Democratic donors in New York City that if Obama wins reelection, he will use “whatever tools are available” — including a constitutional amendment — to roll back Citizens United. That pledge, McConnell told the AEI crowd, is astounding. “Amending the First Amendment for the first time in history is an act of radicalism,” he said. “The courts have said that Congress does not have the authority to muzzle political speech.”
Another reason why McConnell, usually a low-key operator, is mounting a public campaign this month is the Supreme Court’s reported consideration of a Montana case that challenges the Citizens United ruling. McConnell’s AEI speech is a complement to an amicus brief on that case that he recently submitted to the high court. That document defends Citizens United as an enabler of speech and debate, citing as evidence the 2012 Republican presidential-primary campaign, which saw Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich rise thanks to outside funders.
Super PACs and related groups, McConnell says, are a healthy part of our democracy. They let citizens, corporations, and activists find different ways to express themselves politically, especially if they do not want to give directly to a candidate or a party. McConnell’s critics may not like the idea that causes and advocacy groups are different from parties and candidates, but they are, he says, and advocacy groups shouldn’t be regulated as if they were national party committees.
“Especially if you’re a conservative, your ability to speak out on behalf of that cause is very much at stake right now,” McConnell said at AEI. “But this isn’t just a conservative fight. It affects all of us. Because everyone in this room, liberal or conservative, is engaged in what they regard as a very important battle of ideas. And the First Amendment makes all of that possible. If we lose the right to speak, we’ve lost these battles before they’ve even been waged.”
As he left AEI, McConnell told me that Obama and his supporters may knock him for the rest of the campaign, portraying him as a big-money bogeyman, but he is confident that the American people will see through the partisan chatter and understand that this is a constitutional debate, not a political one. At least on Capitol Hill, McConnell already senses a move in his direction.
Ten years ago, many Republicans backed the McCain-Feingold bill to curb campaign spending. Ten years after its passage, he says, and post–Citizens United, most Republicans and a few Democrats recognize that regulating political speech creates more problems than it solves. A new Republican president, McConnell predicts, would never sign a bill like McCain-Feingold, thanks to a growing appreciation in Washington of the First Amendment’s electoral importance.
“I no longer feel so lonely,” McConnell chuckles. “But I’ll keep raising this battle flag.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.