The Corner

The Real Lesson of Obama’s Super PAC Decision

Ruth Marcus has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post that defends the Obama campaign’s decision to support super PACs (“it would be foolish to unilaterally disarm”) but complains, “it could have trumpeted its support for American Priorities without deploying campaign officials. It could have deployed campaign officials without involving the administration. Instead, it chose to push the envelope.”

I think all this flap misses the point. The question is not, as many both right and left seem to think, whether the president is being hypocritical. That’s a minor issue and the concept that one plays under the rules as they are is pretty strong currency.

Rather, the issue is that the reaction to president’s move undercuts the entire argument for campaign-finance regulation. It shows how nobody on the left really believes what they always say about campaign contributions and spending. No one (well, almost no one) believes that this will change the president’s preferred policies; or how he governs; or whom he appoints to office; or his willingness to work with Congress. No one thinks that this is drowning out any element of the Democratic party, or frankly, its Republican rivals. Certainly Ruth Marcus isn’t rethinking her general appraisal of the president, his administration, or its policies. She just wishes he would still support speech restrictions, or at least embrace freedom in this one area with a little less ardor.

So-called reformers always say that the super PACs that have blossomed thanks to the U.S. Court of Appeals decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, and the corporate and union participation allowed by Citizens United v. FEC, are corrupting. But they don’t act on their statements when actually evaluating candidates. This is not an example of hypocrisy but of a similar and equally common phenomenon, what economists call a “revealed preference.”

It turns out that the “reformers” do not believe money is corrupting. Rather, they believe that their political opponents are corrupt. Polling data shows this is true: Polling data routinely shows that voters whose party has lost the last election are far more likely to distrust the government. But that is a thin reed for regulating political speech across the board.

It will be interesting to see if super PACs really do change the administration’s policies. I think we can be pretty sure that the answer will be no. And that’s a pretty strong indictment of the whole argument for campaign-finance “reform.”

— Bradley A. Smith is Josiah H. Blackmore II/Shirley M. Nault Designated Professor of Law at Capital University Law School.

Bradley A. Smith is chairman of the Institute for Free Speech and the Blackmore/Nault Professor of Law at Capital University. He served on the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005.

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