Washington Post columnist George F. Will has been arguing for some time that campaign finance reform curtails “free speech.” Now that Hillary Rodham Clinton is leading the charge of 2008 presidential hopefuls to raise money outside of federal limits on spending by rejecting the publicly funded money for elections, it looks like Will will get his wish. For the first time in history, primary and general election campaigns are likely to spend more than $500 million per candidate. That means that only the top two or three candidates from each party will likely have even a fighting chance of being heard, which will diminish the number of perspectives that voters are exposed to in the debates and other public forums. It also means that this election season has already begun and candidates will likely spend the vast majority of their time soliciting money from the wealthy and the well connected instead of continuing their service to the Senate or the governor’s house, instead of meeting with people across the country to hear their views, instead of engaging with ordinary folks who don’t have $4200 to give to their favorite candidate.
This rampant private spending on elections will also mean more TV ads, more attack-ads, more soft-money unaffiliated smear campaigns (like “Swift Boats”). It is well known that one of the most expensive aspects of political campaigns is television air time. This is a great irony because if the public funds dedicated to any political candidate were matched with equal time on the public airwaves, then there would be no need for any of this nonsensical arms race. I am not the first to remind people that television and radio channels started out as public domain and that the single easiest way to stop attack ads and reckless spending by political candidates would be to dedicate a small portion of those now privately controlled airwaves back to public purposes. Allow each candidate equal advertising time; create more publicly broadcasted forums for debate; allow local stations to broadcast local political rallies in full. Any of these measures would be a real step in the direction of free speech. And none of them are even conceivable as long as there remain so many was to make money through politics. None of these completely sensible ideas will get a hearing as long as people like George Will confuse the pursuit of profit as the only measure of freedom.