McCain-Feingold-Thompson

Looks like our friends over at National Review Online (NRO) have been handed a pile of research showing Fred Thompson’s longstanding support for campaign finance "reform." Go HERE to check it out.

For anybody who shares the Center for Competitive Politics’ perspective on the importance of our First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition, it’s a pretty alarming indictment. A little known fact (although somebody’s obviously hoping it becomes a well-known fact) is that the McCain-Feingold bill was actually the McCain-Feingold-Thompson bill, with the then-Senator from Tennessee joining his Arizona and Wisconsin colleagues in pushing through this bill that continued the long tradition of politicians trying to limit what their critics can say about them.

This little article is a double hit for Thompson: not only does it bring attention to an issue that Thompson’s campaign would presumably just as soon have go away (political speech suppression being wildly unpopular among the conservative activists he is trying to woo), but the mere existence of the article demonstrates the hopelessness of efforts to "get money out of politics," as the "reformers" like to say.

The simple fact that a rival campaign (Democrat or Republican, the NRO reporter doesn’t specify) bundled this nice little package of information and gave it to a relatively conservative media outlet is, in and of itself, strong evidence of the utter futility of legislation such as McCain-Feingold-Thompson.

This is because election politics is about communicating with voters in an effort to persuade enough of them to support your position or candidate. There are endless ways of trying to persuade voters to take your side on an issue or candidate, with the most obvious and often the most effective being television and radio ads.

Another highly effective way of persuading people to your side, of course, is to try to influence media coverage by, among other things, bundling nice little packages of information about your opponent and delivering them to a sympathetic media outlet.

By attempting to suppress candidates and political parties’ speech by limiting the funds they have available to run ads and communicate with voters, laws like McCain-Feingold-Thompson actually force campaigns and parties (and other interested parties) to increase their efforts to place damaging stories about their opponent with sympathetic media.

This, of course, places more power in the hands of the media, allowing them to decide which damaging stories are worth printing and which are not. Short of putting political censors in the newsrooms and editorial meetings of every newspaper in the country to ensure "fairness" to candidates and prevent these sorts of stories from being placed with the press (and it’s possible that even the New York Times would draw the line at this particular "reform"), there is no way to prevent politicians and interested parties from simply shifting their funds and efforts away from heavily-regulated and restricted spending on political ads and towards increased efforts to dig up dirt on opponents and push it into the media.

So, expect to see lots of stories about how much John Edwards spends on haircuts, the exact number of wives Mitt Romney’s second-cousin’s best friend’s great-great-great-grandfather had, what Hillary’s boyfriend from the 7th grade thinks about her, and the inappropriate joke Tommy Thompson once told in his high school locker room.

In economics, we call it "substitution." The practical effect of all these laws that try to limit political speech is that people will simply substitute on form of politicking with another when regulations raise the price on another form. Ultimately, the "reformers" path leads to men wearing trenchcoats standing in dark alleys casting furtive glances over their shoulder and saying things like "Psst, buddy, can I interest you in a flyer critiquing Hillary’s health care proposal?"

An interesting outcome for a law that was intended to "clean up politics," as advocates liked to say. Senator Thompson has already voiced his concern about the unintended consequences of the bill he helped pass and that bears his name. Hopefully, he’ll make the right choice and decide to support more political freedom, not less, and repudiate his support for McCain-Feingold-Thompson.