McCain, Obama can help free speech

One of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s most pressing problems is that legions of conservative activists — without whose support he cannot hope to win in November — hold him in low regard, thanks to the name that frequently follows his in the news.

Though most agree with and perhaps even admire McCain on many other counts, their enthusiasm is tempered because they know the First Amendment suffered a grievous wound when Congress approved the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

That act protects federal incumbents by enfeebling political speech, especially that of their challengers, during the most critical weeks of the campaign season.

For better or worse, these activists won’t work as hard on the Arizona senator’s behalf as they otherwise would because they fear a President McCain would seek to strengthen the law that is his signature legislative achievement and thus further restrict freedom of political speech.

The net result would be a serious setback for efforts to reverse the growth of government and reinvigorate constitutional liberties.

But McCain can mitigate such concerns by filing an amicus brief in support of the petitioner in a case now making its way through the federal courts, SpeechNow.org v. the Federal Election Commission. SpeechNow.org is an association of private individuals seeking contributions from other private individuals.

The funds thus received will be used solely to advocate entirely independently on behalf of federal candidates who oppose McCain-Feingold-style restrictions on political speech and against those who favor such restrictions.

The organizers of SpeechNow.org have petitioned the FEC to exempt the group from McCain-Feingold’s limit on how much individuals can contribute and from being required to register as a political action committee. As former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith notes, the case is thus an “acid test for campaign finance reform and free speech.” By filing on behalf of SpeechNow.org, McCain could act concretely to support freedom of political speech, while reassuring those conservative activists whose most energetic efforts he desperately needs.

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama has a crucial role here, too. FEC Chairman David Mason has drafted an advisory opinion that upholds SpeechNow.org’s petition, but it cannot become official for lack of a quorum, there being three vacancies pending on the panel.

President Bush has nominated three people to fill those vacancies but the Senate has not voted on them because of a hold placed by Obama. He should drop his hold now and ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to schedule the vote promptly.

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