President Obama: Not a Fan of the First Amendment

President Obama took to the airwaves in a recent Saturday address to try to breathe some life into the DISCLOSE Act, an effort by Democrats to squelch political speech they don't like, especially campaign ads.

I've previously discussed DISCLOSE here and here, adding my own translation of the acronym: "Democrat Incumbents S*** on Constitutional Liberties, Offer Sanctimonious Excuses". President Obama continued in the grand Sanctimonious Excuses tradition.

If that sounds familiar, it's because he'd done the same darn thing just four weeks previous. For President Obama, the fear that American citizens might be exposed to Unapproved Speech is never far from the surface.

Fortunately, it was to no avail. The DISCLOSE Act failed to clear the Senate last week; while all 59 Senate Democrats voted Yea, it needed at least one Republican vote, and didn't get it.

I think Obama's arguments deserve a close look, though. Hold your nose, here we go:

Back in January, in my State of the Union Address, I warned of the danger posed by a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United. This decision overturned decades of law and precedent. It gave the special interests the power to spend without limit - and without public disclosure - to run ads in order to influence elections.

Obama's State of the Union comments about the Citizens United case were derided at the time as false and (also) false; even the New York Times noted that they didn't "seem quite right." In addition, the spectacle of the President harshly criticizing a Supreme Court decision with Justices sitting in attendance was cringe-inducing.

Now, as an election approaches, it's not just a theory. We can see for ourselves how destructive to our democracy this can become. We see it in the flood of deceptive attack ads sponsored by special interests using front groups with misleading names. We don't know who's behind these ads or who's paying for them. Even foreign-controlled corporations seeking to influence our democracy are able to spend freely in order to swing an election toward a candidate they prefer.

<voice imitation="count_floyd">Oooh, that's scary, scary stuff, kids!</voice> Destructive to our democracy! Special interests! Furriners!

Just as a point of comparison, Bob Woodward reported a few days back that Obama was confident in America's ability to "absorb a terrorist attack." But unregulated political ads—aieeee, they're the real panty-bunching threat to "democracy." (I suspect, however, that Obama equates "destructive to our democracy" with "severely critical to Democrat election chances.")

And as far as I know, despite Obama's ominous (and evidence-free) assertions, I have yet to see a single ad financed by one of those mysterious "special interests" or "foreign-controlled corporations"—let alone the "flood" that Obama claims is out there, somewhere.

Although I'm not sure. You know why? Because almost certainly, one of those ads "destructive to our democracy" would look exactly like any of the other ads. They wouldn't contain any special mind-rotting, democracy-destroying foreign-sounding additives. When Obama complains that we "don't know who's behind these ads or who's paying for them"— um, so what? Why is that a huge problem? Why is it even a small problem?

It's not.

The most deceptive ad I've seen so far this year has been this one, where Democrat Paul Hodes stands up and claims he's a "real fiscal conservative". No contemplated legislation will stop this sort of counterfactual claptrap, nor should it; the proper remedy is to point out its absurdity, over and over.

We've tried to fix this with a new law - one that would simply require that you say who you are and who's paying for your ad. This way, voters are able to make an informed judgment about a group's motivations. Anyone running these ads would have to stand by their claims. And foreign-controlled corporations would be restricted from spending money to influence elections, just as they were before the Supreme Court opened up this loophole.

Let's continue to consider the (DISCLOSE-compliant) Hodes ad. It was "paid for by "Hodes for Senate". Knowing this adds nothing. Doesn't make it any truer, or falser. Should I want to know who provided money to "Hodes for Senate"? A list of the top 10 contributors, where they live, a detailed analysis of their possible underlying motives for shoving money to the Hodes campaign? Or the top 100 maybe? And does it matter that "Hodes for Senate" is one of the most special of interests?

No. Who cares? "Disclosure" is a red herring issue meant to obfuscate the many provisions in DISCLOSE that would chill a lot of speech and prohibit some more.

So let me suggest Plan B: if you think it's important to know the "who paid for this and why" stuff in order to make an "informed judgment": I suggest you ignore any ad where that information is not provided to your satisfaction. Simply assume it's fanciful nonsense. Or not. Your call.

This is common sense. In fact, this is the kind of proposal that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on for decades. Yet, the Republican leaders in Congress have so far said "no." They've blocked this bill from even coming up for a vote in the Senate. It's politics at its worst. But it's not hard to understand why.

It's not hard to understand why: DISCLOSE was so spectacularly one-sided, they couldn't even persuade free-speech foe John McCain to hold his nose and vote for it. Not Susan Collins, nor Olympia Snowe.

The President has to at least pretend there are more complex reasons, though:

Over the past two years, we have fought back against the entrenched special interests - weakening their hold on the levers of power in Washington. We have taken a stand against the worst abuses of the financial industry and health insurance companies. We've rolled back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. And we've restored enforcement of common sense rules to protect clean air and clean water. We have refused to go along with business as usual.

Ah, 'tis a simple tale of good vs. evil. As long as you don't consider trial lawyers or unions to be "special interests"… it's a sweet story.

Now, the special interests want to take Congress back, and return to the days when lobbyists wrote the laws. And a partisan minority in Congress is hoping their defense of these special interests and the status quo will be rewarded with a flood of negative ads against their opponents. It's a power grab, pure and simple. They're hoping they can ride this wave of unchecked influence all the way to victory.

Another little reality check: the DISCLOSE Act didn't restrict lobbying at all. As Timothy Carney notes: lobbyists could still talk to Congress all they wanted. What DISCLOSE tries to squelch is communication to the public. "Congress is upset that non-profits and companies might be going over Congress's head."

What is clear is that Congress has a responsibility to act. But the truth is, any law will come too late to prevent the damage that has already been done this election season. That is why, any time you see an attack ad by one of these shadowy groups, you should ask yourself, who is paying for this ad? Is it the health insurance lobby? The oil industry? The credit card companies?

Gosh, I don't know why people keep claiming that Obama's an anti-business demagogue, do you?

Here's a shocking alternative to Obama's borderline-paranoid suggestion: evaluate the merits of the claims the ad makes. Do it on your own. Engage in research. Use your critical-thinking skills, just like big boys and girls are supposed to do.

But more than that, you can make sure that the tens of millions of dollars spent on misleading ads do not drown out your voice. Because no matter how many ads they run - no matter how many elections they try to buy - the power to determine the fate of this country doesn't lie in their hands. It lies in yours. It's up to all of us to defend that most basic American principle of a government of, by, and for the people. What's at stake is not just an election. It's our democracy itself.

That's nice, but everything else in Obama's speech contradicts this picture of a citizenry able to deal with controversy, deception, fallacies, and outright lies that are endemic to the political season.

Either the voting public deserves the respect implied by the First Amendment, or it doesn't. Obama, it's clear, thinks it doesn't; it needs to be sheltered and protected from the "shadowy" and "foreign". Hence the need for onerous regulations and restrictions; political speech needs to be filtered through the elite before it's presented to the great unwashed masses. Our "democracy itself" is at stake. No matter if you have to throw one of our most important Constitutional liberties in the toilet.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:25 PM EST