Po­lit­i­cal speech faces 2018 on­slaught

The Signal - - OPINION - Dan BACKER Dan Backer is the found­ing at­tor­ney of po­lit­i­cal law, a cam­paign fi­nance and po­lit­i­cal law firm in Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia. He has served as coun­sel to more than 100 cam­paigns, can­di­dates, PACs, and po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The 2018 elec­tion is al­ready upon us. Amer­i­cans can ex­pect an ex­pen­sive one. Out­side groups have spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lar on Se­nate and House races al­ready. A pro­jected $3 bil­lion will be spent on po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tise­ments through 2018.

And there’s noth­ing wrong with that. “Money in pol­i­tics” — long vil­i­fied by lib­eral com­men­ta­tors — sim­ply trans­lates to more in­for­ma­tion with which vot­ers make de­ci­sions. This means more ads, more town halls, and more po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion — the foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Our so­ci­ety flour­ishes when we are ex­posed to more speech and can freely as­so­ciate with more po­lit­i­cal groups, not fewer.

Un­for­tu­nately, the main­stream me­dia is al­ready fear­mon­ger­ing, churn­ing out omi­nous phrases like “dark money” and “as­sault on trans­parency.” A re­cent New York Times head­line reads: “Amer­i­can democ­racy is drown­ing in money.” The Times praises France’s re­stric­tive sys­tem, where paid po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing on tele­vi­sion is pro­hib­ited and cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions are strictly lim­ited.

The Huff­in­g­ton Post breath­lessly warns read­ers: “Out­side fi­nanciers are al­ready be­gin­ning to wield their in­flu­ence.” Esquire sen­sa­tion­al­ized that “dark money in­vades our pol­i­tics.”

In truth, po­lit­i­cal donors are rarely, if ever, boogey­men or for­eign in­vaders. They are al­most al­ways Amer­i­cans ex­er­cis­ing their rights to free speech and free as­so­ci­a­tion. Why should the heavy hands of Big Gov­ern­ment and the main­stream me­dia stop any Amer­i­can from spend­ing his or her own money on cam­paigns, su­per PACs, or any or­ga­ni­za­tion de­sired?

Lib­eral groups are now fol­low­ing the lib­eral me­dia’s lead. End Cit­i­zens United (ECU), a left-wing su­per PAC, plans to spend $35 bil­lion on the 2018 elec­tion — up from $25 mil­lion in 2016. ECU hopes to make anti-speech cam­paign fi­nance re­form a top is­sue, claim­ing “it has taken on a new mean­ing and a new im­por­tance in vot­ers’ ev­ery­day lives.”

A su­per PAC spend­ing $35 mil­lion to re­strict po­lit­i­cal spend­ing could use a heavy dose of self-aware­ness. This lib­eral cam­paign fi­nance cru­sade isn’t re­ally about get­ting money out of pol­i­tics; it’s about get­ting the wrong money out of pol­i­tics — re­strict­ing con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal spend­ing they dis­agree with.

Iron­i­cally ECU’s own abil­ity to en­gage in mean­ing­ful po­lit­i­cal speech — which they seek to deny oth­ers — is im­pos­si­ble with­out lots of money. Their $35 mil­lion bud­get is es­sen­tial to run TV ads, or­ga­nize events, and pay staff and ven­dors who make ECU’s po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion pos­si­ble.

The best ideas reach crit­i­cal mass not only on their mer­its, but be­cause their mer­its are widely com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This costs money — lots of it. But all that money does is in­sert those ideas into our po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. It is al­ways up to in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans to de­cide for them­selves which ideas they sup­port and which they op­pose. The anti-speech move­ment is grounded in a sim­ple premise: Amer­i­cans are just too stupid to think for them­selves — money will buy their vote.

This is not only in­sult­ing, but in­ac­cu­rate. In 2016, Jeb Bush and his es­tab­lish­ment al­lies spent $130 mil­lion on his pres­i­den­tial run. Roughly $84 mil­lion went for ad­ver­tis­ing — lots and lots of Jeb! ads. An­other $18.3 mil­lion paid cam­paign staffers and con­sul­tants. We all know what hap­pened: Jeb! failed to win a sin­gle state in the Repub­li­can pri­maries, never break­ing fourth place or even 4 per­cent.

The three other can­di­dates who round out the four largest su­per PACs in his­tory — Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 and Hil­lary Clin­ton and Marco Ru­bio in 2016 — all met the same fate. Mean­while, Pres­i­dent Trump cruised to pri­mary vic­tory af­ter vic­tory run­ning al­most no ads but re­ceiv­ing plenty of news cov­er­age.

Most re­cently, for­mer Alabama Supreme Court Jus­tice Roy Moore de­feated Sen. Luther Strange (R-Alabama) — an es­tab­lish­ment in­cum­bent — in the state’s Repub­li­can pri­mary runoff with 57 per­cent of the vote. He was out­spent 5-to-1.

Money doesn’t win elec­tions. Votes do. If you don’t want to vote for some­one, there isn’t enough money in the world to con­vince you oth­er­wise.

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