Conservatives are often quick to accuse the press of exhibiting bias in their coverage of American politics. Sometimes, accusations of subtle or even unconscious favoritism in the political press are well-founded. Other times, bias is merely perceived. The movement by Senate Democrats to amend the Constitution in order to restrict the freedom of protected political speech contained within the First Amendment has, however, exposed a rather obvious blind spot in the political media.
On Monday, the Senate passed a procedural vote to allow debate on the Democrats proposed amendment to the Constitution which would reverse a number of Supreme Court decisions that overturned laws aimed at curtailing the public’s ability to spend money on political speech. From 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo, to 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC, to just this past summer in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court has been engaged in a systematic rolling back of the restrictions imposed on political speech by the Congress for over a generation.
Democrats in Congress know their voters want to put an end to that and, lacking any other realistic agenda to satisfy them, liberal officeholders have embarked on an effort to delude their base into believing that the United States Constitution should and can be reshaped and the First Amendment rewritten.
It cannot, but Republicans are quite happy to give Democrats all the rope for which they are asking. On Monday, 79 U.S. Senators voted to advance the amendment, suggesting that a number of Republicans are more than happy to talk about the Democratic effort to curtail a freedom so crucial to the republic that the founders determined it should be the first. Politico, meanwhile, is less enthusiastic about this blossoming of bipartisanship.
“Many of the Republicans only voted for the bill to foul up Democrats’ pre-election messaging schedule, freezing precious Senate floor time for a measure that ultimately has no chance of securing the two-thirds support necessary in both the House and Senate to amend the Constitution,” Politico’s Burgess Everett penned scornfully.
The legislation needed 60 votes to advance and Democrats took a cynical view of the 79-18 tally. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the GOP’s tactic was simply to “stall” because it would eat up limited floor time that Democrats are eyeing for votes aimed at encouraging gender pay equity and raising the minimum wage.
Democrats see electoral benefits in their proposal, pointing to Democratic-commissioned polls in battleground states that show bipartisan majorities in support of limiting big donors’ influence in politics and in opposition to Super PACs. Party leaders and aides believe their campaign finance proposal is popular and places the GOP on the wrong side of public opinion — so some Democratic aides said they were happy for the debate to consume the Senate this week and still plan to hold votes on raising the minimum wage and pay equity before breaking for campaign season.
In other words, Senate Democrats were foolish for pursuing a measure which is entirely aimed at mollifying their discontented base. Instead, they should be pursuing other measures which are entirely aimed at mollifying their discontented base but that have even a modest hope of passing the upper chamber. And why didn’t those devious Republicans save Democrats from themselves?
“They know we’re getting out of here fairly shortly and they want to prevent discussion on other very important issues,” Said one of the amendment’s cosponsors, avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “I would love to be proven wrong. But if the end of this week, we end up getting 67 votes, you can tell me I was too cynical.”
The supporters of this measure have convinced themselves that the public is wholly in favor of curtailing the freedoms all Americans enjoy in order to advance the utopian notion of perfectly equal political speech. It is an ideal liberal lawmakers will find impossible to deliver, but they are nevertheless happy to promise the public the moon and more. But the press does the public a disservice by often failing to note that what this amendment seeks to repeal is the First Amendment as we currently understand it.
This measure’s supporters are not so shy about addressing this potentially fatal critique:
“Critics have claimed that the amendment would repeal the First Amendment’s free speech protections. But it does the exact opposite,” wrote Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) in what was billed as a “bipartisan” case for amending the Bill of Rights. “[T]he proposal is an effort to restore the First Amendment so that it applies equally to all Americans. When a few billionaires can drown out the voices of millions of Americans, we can’t have any real political debate.”
Udall joined Sanders for a Politico Magazine op-ed in which they claim that the Supreme Court itself is waging a war on the First Amendment. They warn that, when we live in an era in which “writing checks from the company’s bank account is constitutionally protected speech and that attempts to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, our democracy is in grave danger.”
This is simply inane.
“Why, for example, does the existence of campaign ads constitute a grave danger to the very concept of democracy? After all, a core concept of democracy, especially with respect to free speech, is that the remedy to bad or incorrect speech is not government restriction on speech, but more speech,” Red State’s Leon Wolf wrote. “When the government plays arbiter between whose speech is protected and whose is not, that is the true threat to Democracy, not the very concept that groups of people who have things they want to say have the money to say them on television.”
Wolf puts his finger on the problem: This amendment’s supporters sound incoherent because theirs is not a substantive argument. It is merely a populist gripe in the form of legislation. The Democratic Party has come a long way from Al Smith’s admonition that “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” Today, the cure for the ills of democracy is to restrict the freedoms of the Kulak class.
It is the political press which is dropping the ball by not calling this effort out for what it is. That may simply be because, while a kamikaze constitutional amendment may not be the right way to pursue the goal of limiting the influence money has over politics, many agree with that ultimate aim. If, however, the end justifies the means, even if those means are selective honesty and clever omissions while reporting on this particular vehicle, is the end really all that noble and popular?
This post has been updated since its original publication.