May 15, 2006

The Hypocritical Straight Talk Express Man: The Ongoing Problem With John McCain

Donald B. Hawthorne

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) prides himself on his "straight talk." However, recent times have shown that his appreciation for his own free speech does not frequently apply to others' right to free speech.

First, he led the effort to curtail free speech via the euphemism called campaign finance reform.

Second, George Will recently captured some McCain comments which showed a genuine lack of respect for free speech:

Presidents swear to "protect and defend the Constitution." The Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." On April 28, on Don Imus' radio program, discussing the charge that the McCain-Feingold law abridges freedom of speech by regulating the quantity, content and timing of political speech, John McCain did not really reject the charge:
"I work in Washington and I know that money corrupts. And I and a lot of other people were trying to stop that corruption. Obviously, from what we've been seeing lately, we didn't complete the job. But I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."

Question: Were McCain to take the Presidential oath, what would he mean?

In his words to Imus, note the obvious disparagement he communicates by putting verbal quotation marks around "First Amendment rights." Those nuisances.

Then ponder his implicit promise to "complete the job" of cleansing Washington of corruption, as McCain understands that. Unfortunately, although McCain is loquacious about corruption, he is too busy deploring it to define it. Mister Straight Talk is rarely reticent about anything, but is remarkably so about specifics...

Anyway, he vows to "complete the job" of extirpating corruption, regardless of the cost to freedom of speech. Regardless, that is, of how much more the government must supervise political advocacy.

President McCain would, it is reasonable to assume, favor increasingly stringent limits on what can be contributed to, or spent by, campaigns. Furthermore, McCain seems to regard unregulated political speech as an inherent invitation to corruption. And he seems to believe that anything done in the name of "leveling the playing field" for political competition is immune from First Amendment challenges.

The logic of his doctrine would cause him to put the power of the Presidency behind efforts to clamp government controls on Internet advocacy...It is extending to regulation in the name of "fairness." Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer, says this about the metastasizing government regulation of campaigns:

"More and more, it is meant to regulate any money with the potential of influencing elections; and so any unregulated but influential money, in whichever way its influence is felt or achieved, is unfair." This explains the hand-wringing horror with which the reform community approached the Internet's fast-growing use and limitless potential.

This is why the banner of "campaign reform" is no longer waved only by insurgents from outside the political establishment. Washington's most powerful people carry the banner: Led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, and with the President's approval, the Republican-controlled House recently voted to cripple the ability of citizens' groups called 527s (named after the provision of the tax code under which they are organized) to conduct independent advocacy that Washington's ruling class considers "unfair."...

Proof that incumbent politicians are highly susceptible to corruption is the fact that the government they control is shot through with it. Yet that government should be regarded as a disinterested arbiter, untainted by politics and therefore qualified to regulate the content, quantity and timing of speech in campaigns that determine who controls the government. In the language of McCain's Imus appearance, the government is very much not "clean," but is so clean it can be trusted to regulate speech about itself...

McCain told Imus that he would, if necessary, sacrifice "quote First Amendment rights" to achieve "clean" government. If on Jan. 20, 2009, he were to swear to defend the Constitution, would he be thinking that the oath refers only to "the quote Constitution"? And what would that mean?

Third, McCain's words were dripping with condescension when he slammed the free speech exercised by bloggers in his recent speech at Liberty University:

When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed, and wiser than anyone else I knew. It seemed I understood the world and the purpose of life so much more profoundly than most people. I believed that to be especially true with many of my elders, people whose only accomplishment, as far as I could tell, was that they had been born before me, and, consequently, had suffered some number of years deprived of my insights. I had opinions on everything, and I was always right. I loved to argue, and I could become understandably belligerent with people who lacked the grace and intelligence to agree with me. With my superior qualities so obvious, it was an intolerable hardship to have to suffer fools gladly. So I rarely did. All their resistance to my brilliantly conceived and cogently argued views proved was that they possessed an inferior intellect and a weaker character than God had blessed me with, and I felt it was my clear duty to so inform them. It's a pity that there wasn't a blogosphere then. I would have felt very much at home in the medium.

Unfortunately, none of this surprises people anymore because it is now clear that the only right to free speech Senator McCain believes in is his own. And that means he fails the "presidential timber" test.