McCain's Lockbox For Conservatives

Is big money ruining politics? Do we have a political debate strangled by special interests? Here's one vision of how major corporations are blatantly promoting their own selfish agenda, doling out massive resources to back a politician who will carry their water.

The industry is the national media. The water-carrying pol is John McCain.

Unquestionably, there is a problem with campaign financing, and we ought not to pretend there isn't. The rise of sneaky, undisclosed soft money into campaigns is corrupting. But the solution is more disclosure and more open participation. For example, take the way journalists accept honoraria to speak before business and political groups. Some journalists might take the money and favor the groups that enriched them, but should journalists' honoraria be summarily banned?

The solution is not the often-defeated McCain-Feingold bill, which is a monstrosity that would stifle debate instead of enrich it. With ultraliberal Paul Wellstone's amendment attached, when conservative Americans feel lambasted and caricatured around election times, the media are licking their chops at the prospect of their adversaries being denied their televised end run around the suffocating liberal spin.

When the U.S. Senate took up McCain-Feingold, the three major networks offered their very valuable morning airwaves to Sen. McCain. There were no probing questions. Anyone who opposed McCain was not allowed on television. Opponents' concerns about McCain's bill were not brought up in their absence. If the "evil" influence of "big money" is so oppressive, how come McCain's view is pretty much the only view the "news" manufacturers can find?

Is that a promising future for our democracy? Will only one viewpoint be characterized as "pro-democracy," while the other viewpoints go unheard? Any citizen who wanted to organize and put on a commercial to challenge this lopsided state of affairs within oh, 60 days of an election, would be squashed by the oh-so-democratic motives of Sen. McCain and his censorious cronies.

But the bill involves prohibitions on more than just advocacy around an election. It could ban nonprofit groups and corporations and unions from paying for communication with the public - at absolutely any time of the year. If the federal speech police believe a group has "coordinated" with a candidate for federal office (which would include pretty much every member of Congress) on an issue, it could be illegal to communicate "anything of connection with a federal candidate's election."

For example, if Citizens for a Sound Economy sent out questionnaires to members of Congress, and they responded, they would no longer be able to advertise in those states or House districts without risk of federal investigation. How would the news media like a law that would drag them into the courthouse when they enter into "coordinated activity" with a Democratic political campaign? Oh, but McCain made sure the media are exempt.

John McCain was an American hero in a different time, but he is a menace in the present. His draconian restrictions of the citizenry's right to organize and speak out are blatantly unconstitutional, and hopefully, if precedent is any guide, the courts will overrule these gag rules before they take effect.

But his efforts to put the thumbscrews to free political speech get nothing from our network news stars but a thumbs-up and a smile. On ABC, Jack Ford cooed, "You have waited a long time to get this bill before the Senate. Now that it's there, do you believe you have the votes to get it passed?" NBC's Katie Couric buried her perkiness in grave concern: "I know you're worried this is gonna get amended to death, right?" On CBS's "Face the Nation," their idea of a tough question was pushing McCain to run for President again in 2004. After the batting practice with softballs was over, host Bob Schieffer editorialized, "I don't know how this one is going to come out, but campaign finance is finally getting the airing it deserved and the Senate has never looked better."

But the networks have barely touched the hypocrisy of McCain's buddies at the group "Americans for Reform" putting up hundreds of thousands of dollars in what McCain calls "sham issue ads" that promote McCain and Feingold. McCain's blatant exploitation of "coordinated activity" with "big money" on this question isn't news, since the media agree with the message being advocated.

If not for the possibility of a Bush veto, or some First Amendment sticklers in the judiciary branch, McCain might succeed at putting those annoying "big money" voices for tax cuts or against partial-birth abortion in a liberal media lockbox.