National Review Online
By Robert Costa
In the early Seventies, before he entered politics, Mitch McConnell was a young and unknown Kentucky lawyer. To help pay the bills, he taught night courses at the University of Louisville. In 1974, Watergate was not officially part of his civics curriculum, he recalls, but the congressional response to the Nixon scandal featured heavily in class discussions.
From afar, McConnell’s students debated the passage of amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which established new disclosure rules and spending limits. Many of the undergraduates were initially supportive of the measures, because of their anger toward Nixon, but after McConnell brought the First Amendment implications to their attention, a few of them switched their position.
Ever since, McConnell has continued to make a professorial case about the importance of deregulating political spending. As the elected leader of Senate Republicans, he wears many hats, but on a personal level, no issue has shaped his career more than the intersection of campaign financing and free speech. Late last week, he made two major addresses on the subject, first at the American Enterprise Institute and soon after at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference.
McConnell’s multi-decade pushback against campaign-finance reformers — including members of the Senate GOP conference, such as John McCain — has not always been popular, he acknowledges. But as the Obama administration attempts to “micromanage” political speech, he says, his efforts are more than a pet project — they’re critical for every political group, conservative or liberal, that wants to speak up without Big Brother calling the shots.
“This is an issue that’s hard to explain,” McConnell tells me. “Whenever you start to make the argument, people accuse you of being in favor of corruption, all the usual stuff. Many of my colleagues want to stay ten miles away from an issue like that.” But, he adds, if conservatives who care about the Constitution do not actively defend the Supreme Court’sCitizens United ruling, the president and his allies will do whatever they can to delegitimize it.
Or at the very least, McConnell says, Obama and his allies will keep shaming Americans who support conservative causes. Blocking the DISCLOSE Act, a bill which would have expanded disclosure requirements for donations to political groups, was a good start, he says, but Democrats’ thirst for exposing conservative donors remains strong. Obama-friendly organizations such as Media Matters, he notes, frequently use “thuggish” tactics to pressure private citizens.
McConnell underscored that threat in his AEI talk, citing Nixon, the man who got him interested in the issue 40 years ago. He compared Obama’s eagerness to bully organizations that disagree with him to the Nixon White House, right down to an “an old-school enemies list.” Obama’s obsession with the Koch brothers, he said, is not only a crass political strategy, but a dangous one: He noted that after Obama’s campaign manager sent an e-mail to supporters about a Koch-backed event, Koch employees were “threatened and harassed by left-wing groups.”