Five Years Of Failure

In today’s New York Sun, Ryan Sager notes that it was five years ago today that the McCain-Feingold bill was signed into law:

Five years ago today, President Bush signed into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Today, American politics is so clean you could eat off it — except for the mud-slinging, back-scratching, favor-trading, influence-peddling, bald-faced lying, indictments, and convictions.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that McCain-Feingold is an egregious attack on the First Amendment rights of American citizens, although it is admittedly hard to do so. Has the bill accomplished what it’s supporters said it would ? As Sager points out so well, the answer is absolutely not:

The former senator from Tennessee, Fred Thompson, who championed McCain-Feingold, promised that it would “help challengers reach a threshold of credibility when they want to challenge us in these races.” Putting aside the ludicrous notion that 535 incumbent politicians sat down and tried to write a piece of legislation that would make it harder to get reelected, five years later there’s no evidence electoral competition has increased. Sure, control of Congress turned over. But anyone who attributes the 2006 election to McCain-Feingold, as opposed to Bush-Cheney-Hastert-Frist, is delusional.

Some McCain-Feingold supporters promised that the bill would reduce the amount of money being raised and spent in elections. “This bill forces all of us,” Senator Cantwell of Washington said during the debate, “to play by the same rules and raise and spend money in lower amounts.” As the Sun’s Josh Gerstein reports today, that certainly hasn’t been the result. Candidates for both parties’ nominations will surely be shattering first-quarter fundraising records next month.

Then there was the claim that McCain-Feingold could restore trust in government. On this score, Mr. Thompson declared that “we are making headway to do something that will reduce the cynicism in this country and that will help this body, that will help us individually.” While, plenty of congressmen have helped themselves individually over the past five years (see: indictments and convictions and plea agreements, above), there is still enough cynicism around for Senator Obama of Illinois to make defeating it the main rationale for his presidential campaign.

Last but not least — and here we get to the real nub of campaign-finance regulation — McCain-Feingold supporters promised that the bill would curb the scourge of “negative” and “dirty” advertising. “It is about slowing political advertising,” Ms. Cantwell said during the debate. “Making sure the flow of negative ads by outside interest groups does not continue to permeate the airwaves.”

Of course, curbing and “slowing” speech critical of politicians by “outside interest groups” (a.k.a. “citizens”) is in no way a permissible goal under the First Amendment. But, ultimately, the politicians may have failed in this most nefarious goal. And it’s not just the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who showed the way around it.

As Sager points out, the Internet, and most notably the “1984” ad that was the buzz of the political world for weeks, have opened up a new avenue for political speech that the advocates of McCain-Feingold never even conceived of. And it’s virtually free.

One wonders how long it will be before Congress goes after YouTube.