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Monday, May 10, 2004

The Hamstrung Heroes

Two years ago, in a wave of feverish pro-democracy feeling, the city council in Eugene, Oregon approved a measure that would allow candidates for city office to accept voluntary spending limits on their campaign. For the primaries, folks running for mayor would agree to accept no more than $30,000; candidates for city would accept no more than $7,500. Those candidates who signed the pledge would receive a little free publicity from the city to the effect that they had signed the pledge. Those candidates who did not were free to accept money in the same old amounts from the same old people. As reported here by Edward Russo in The Register-Guard, the results on the measure are in.

It isn't working.

Two mayoral candidates have signed the pledge - both are trailing badly in the polls. And the two leading contenders in the mayor's race have spent a record $127,000 between them. In the city council races, none of the incumbents and only one of the challengers, a student at the University of Oregon, have signed the pledge.

Holy backfire, Batman!

No kidding, you might be saying to yourself. Who would agree to limit their spending in a political race without being sure that their opponent would do the same? And why would the Eugene city council pass a measure designed to curb spending in races for city offices that had the opposite effect? If you want to create a level playing field between candidates, why not just set mandatory spending limits that all candidates must abide?

Well, the answer lies in the Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with free speech. The men in black decided that the First Amendment mandates that a candidate has the right to spend an unlimited amount of money on a campaign in order to "assure [the] unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people." Hmm. You'd think as much time as these guys spend hanging around in their robes that they would have caught a political ad or two on television. Looks more like finger-pointing and name-calling and fancy camera shots than it does an "unfettered exchange of ideas."

If we the people want a free exchange of ideas about our political system and the laws by which we live, there are plenty of ways to go about it that don't require huge sums of money. Candidates can use websites, write Op-Eds, appear in political debates, do interviews on radio or TV or the internet, or simply come talk to us at townhall meetings or other community forums. Sure, the high-paid political consultants and ad guys might miss out on their fat paychecks, but we might finally get candidates for office that would discuss their actual honest-to-god opinions with us instead of the same old watered-down crap their political handlers have spoon-fed them.

But no. As long as Buckley reigns, the folks in Oregon who would spend their money on solving civic problems rather than TV ads will just have to make do with an unsatisfactory solution to a very real problem. Which is what the rest of us will have to do as well until we let the men and women who would lead our country know that to do so they need the consent of all Americans, not just the few that can afford to exercise their First Amendment rights under Buckley.

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