How much outrage can a level playing field contain?

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When I speak to journalism classes, I like to say that there are two kinds of editorial writers: those who read the morning paper and exclaim: “Isn’t that outrageous!” and those who read the paper and say: “Isn’t that interesting!” The editorial writers of The New York Times are almost always in outrage mode, but especially when the subject is the role of money in political campaigns.

In an April 5 editorial, the (other) Times reacted apoplectically to the news that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were rolling in (perfectly legal) campaign contributions. The editorial began by pointing out that Obama, at least, realized he was doing something tacky:

“At least one of the presidential candidates making the first feverish dash of the 2008 fund-raising derby felt obliged to describe the tastelessness of the race. ‘I’m raising obscene amounts of money,’ said Sen. Barack Obama, hardly pausing on his way to piling up a first-round total of $25 million.


Note the editorial’s emphasis on aesthetics: Successful fund raising is “tasteless” and “obscene” and the dollars contributed by people (including rich people!) are “piling up.”

Why is this bad? Because, the editorial harrumphed, Americans were showing the money in a race “that is supposed to be a different sort of competition -- if not of ideas, then at least of personalities and positions.”

Fortunately, the editorial went on, Obama (I suppose in the spirit of St. Augustine’s prayer that God grant him chastity “but not yet”) had joined Sen. John McCain in “pledging to go halfway toward sanity by embracing public finance limits in next year’s general election, providing both final candidates agree.”

So fund-raising by presidential candidates isn’t just tasteless and obscene -- it’s insane!


This editorial is animated by what I call the high doctrine of campaign finance reform, the belief that the law can and should “level the playing field” of politics by reducing the advantages conferred on some candidates and citizens by the fact that they have more money than the next fellow.

It’s a popular idea, and it’s infused by the same priggish aversion to filthy lucre that moves some liberals to pine for a tax-supported, BBC-like broadcasting system that wouldn’t be dependent on morally corrupting advertising revenues. Unfortunately, the high doctrine of campaign finance reform -- while it has appealed to Congress at times -- has been resoundingly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

True, the court has upheld limits on the size of campaign contributions to candidates and party organizations, and it even has allowed Congress to impose a blackout on some “issue ads” broadcast close to an election if they mention a candidate by name and are paid for out of corporation or union treasuries.

But in approving these restrictions on political speech, the court has made it clear that it was doing so not to “level the playing field” or empower shallow-pocketed candidates or voters. The restrictions are justified on another ground altogether -- Congress’ decision to “limit the actuality and appearance of corruption.” (The quotation is from a 2003 ruling upholding most of the McCain-Feingold law.)


This is the low (or modest) doctrine of campaign finance reform -- that real or apparent corruption can justify some restrictions on what is otherwise protected political speech. As for the high doctrine/level-playing-field approach, it is was renounced by the court in the granddaddy of all campaign-finance decisions, the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo.

In that post-Watergate case, the court indeed upheld limits on contributions (which have low speech value because they are used to express the candidate’s message, not the contributor’s). But it struck down limits on campaign expenditures, including expenditures by independent actors -- be they Hollywood moguls or do-gooders with trust funds -- who have a lot of money to bestow on the political flavor of the month.

Here’s the money quote, as Andrew Sullivan would put it:

“It is argued, however, that the ancillary governmental interest in equalizing the relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections serves to justify the limitation on express advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates... But the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.”


Thus was the high doctrine of campaign finance reform brought low -- as it should have been. Yet it’s the high doctrine that is used to condemn as “tasteless” or “obscene” the fact that Barack Obama has inspired lots of Americans -- some rich, some poor -- to contribute to his cause, not because that donation buys a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom or an earmark in the next appropriations bill but because they believe in the man.

I find that not outrageous but interesting.

Michael McGough is The Times’ senior editorial writer.