Issue Ads: 1992 Christian Action Network "Clinton's Vision for a Better America"

Ad Text

Bill Clinton's vision for a better America includes [text on screen, Job Quotas for Homosexuals] job quotas for homosexuals, [text on screen, Special Rights for Homosexuals], giving homosexuals special civil rights, [text on screen, Homosexuals in the Armed Forces], allowing homosexuals in the armed forces. [text on screen, Homosexuals Adopting Children] Al Gore supports homosexual couples' adopting children and becoming foster parents. Is this your vision for a better America? For more information on traditional family values, contact the Christian Action Network. [text on screen, Christian Action Network, P.O. 606, Forest, VA. 24551 paid for the Christian Action Network]

Ad Background

In 1992, a "pro-family" lobbying group known as the Christian Action Network (CAN) was worried about the direction of government policy. The particular issue that upset group leaders was the movement toward "radical homosexual rights" in the United States. An increasingly vocal constituency comprised of gay rights organizations had developed an extensive agenda that included civil rights for gays and lesbians, anti-discrimination rules, the right to adopt children, and allowing homosexuals to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, among other things.

Led by conservative activist Martin Mawyer, CAN concluded it was time for decisive action. Rather than sit on the sidelines, as many religious-oriented organizations had done previously out of deference to the separation of church and state, CAN chose to go public with its concerns. Its battleground would be the 1992 presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was sympathetic to gay rights and CAN felt it was important right before the election to educate the public about Clinton's views in this area.

Using a television commercial, "Clinton's Vision for a Better America" that aired over 250 times in 24 major cities across the country along with newspaper advertisements, columns, and direct mail letters, CAN condemned Clinton for supporting radical homosexual rights. Featuring policy stances of Clinton and his running mate Al Gore, interspersed with pictures of young men wearing chains and leather marching in a Gay Pride parade, the ad concluded by asking "Is this your vision for a better America?" The spot gave an address where viewers could write for more information about the cause.

Most important from the standpoint of campaign finance, none of the group's $2 million in expenditures that year was publicly disclosed because the group did not consider itself as engaging in electioneering activities. Rather, according to the organization, it was following the hallowed American tradition of public education and freedom of speech.

Because it did not explicitly advocate the electoral defeat of Clinton, only the criticism of his policies, CAN claimed it did not have to register as a political action committee, disclose its contributors, or reveal how much money it was spending. The full scope of its political activities came to light only after the FEC sued the group for failing to register as a political action committee and for not disclosing its contributors and spending, as required by federal law.

In appealing to the general public, the Christian Action Network represented a forerunner of what now has become a typical strategy. Rather than make campaign contributions directly to candidates or lobbying them in office once they have been elected, a number of interest groups are taking to the airwaves during election campaigns and attempting to sway the general public.

On the surface, the public education ads that they broadcast look just like campaign ads. The spots criticize the opposition candidate, generally in the weeks leading up to a crucial election. But because they do not use the words "vote for or against" specific candidates, such commercials have been defined by the courts as outside the category of electioneering activities. As made clear below, though, many of these issue-oriented commercials actually are election ads in disguise.

What Is Issue Advocacy?

Issue advocacy refers to public education appeals run by interest groups or political parties that promote a set of ideas, but do not expressly oppose or support the election of specific candidates. Under legal interpretations dating back to Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, groups are considered to be engaging in electioneering only if they run ads or produce material including words like "vote for or against Representative Smith." Even though this doctrine rests on a single footnote in that landmark decision, over the past two decades, that footnote has taken on a status roughly equivalent to the Holy Grail.

In that Supreme Court decision, justices sought to distinguish three categories of political activism: 1) lobbying government officials directly, which could be regulated, 2) electioneering, which would be subject to post-Watergate rules on disclosure, contribution limits, and voluntary spending limits (for presidential candidates), and 3) public education activities, which would face no restriction or required disclosure owing to First Amendment concerns about freedom of speech. In regard to the latter, groups would not be required to register as political action committees unless they explicitly used so-called "magic words," such as "vote for," "support," "elect," or "defeat".

The obvious problem with the distinction between the three types of activities is that there are many ways to convey the instruction of voting for or against a candidate without ever using that language. With recent advances in television and video production, it is possible to employ audio voice-overs, music, visual text, visual images, color, editing, and codewords to communicate powerful, election-oriented messages to the general public. Indeed, it takes little ingenuity to produce a public education appeal that complies with the Buckley court decision, yet still tells people they should vote for or against a particular candidate.

The result of this state of affairs is that a wide variety of liberal and conservative interests spanning the political spectrum have figured out how to engage in electioneering activities designed to influence the public without any required disclosure of their campaign efforts. The growth of electioneering masquerading as public education creates huge opportunities for clandestine political action. Without any significant public debate about this change, advocacy groups have gutted the post-Watergate system of campaign finance that has been in place for the last two decades. This has created a situation where political dialogue is funded secretly, to the detriment of democratic representation and accountability.

The Case of the Christian Action Network

In the annals of issue advocacy, the group that opened the floodgates was the Christian Action Network. CAN took to the airwaves in 1992 because of concern over Clinton's stance in favor of gay rights. Spending around $2 million, CAN broadcast a television ad, took out newspaper ads, distributed newspaper columns, and sent out direct mail letters.

However, there was nothing in any of those activities that would have provoked legal scrutiny because of the right of any group, liberal or conservative, to express its viewpoint. What made this case noteworthy was that CAN chose not to register as a political action committee and did not comply with federal rules on disclosure of electioneering activities.

This failure to register as a political action committee led to a Democratic complaint with the FEC that CAN was violating campaign laws. Following a government investigation, the FEC sued CAN in federal court on October 18, 1994. The case was difficult to prosecute because no where in the television or newspaper advertisements or in direct mail materials did CAN utter the magic electioneering words cited in the Buckley decision. For example, the television ad informed viewers of Clinton's stance on gay rights, showed pictures of the candidate, and criticized his policy views. But it never used words such as "vote against Clinton" or "Clinton should be defeated because of his gay rights views."

What then, led the FEC to make the Christian Action Network the agency's first effort at enforcement centering on interest group television advertising? Government lawyers argued that the medium of television created unique possibilities for non-verbal communications and electronic imagery not possible with print or radio commercials. Rather than relying solely on explicit words, as had been identified in the Buckley court decision as the primary means of distinguishing electioneering from public education, it was time for the courts to recognize non-verbal means of delivering substantive messages.

I was hired by the FEC as an expert witness to assess the message contained in CAN's television advertisement. In my opinion, this 30 second television spot expressly advocated the defeat of candidates Clinton and Gore in the 1992 presidential general election. It did so by employing the techniques of audio voice-overs, music, visual text, visual images, color, codewords, and editing. In their totality, these techniques conveyed the view that voters should defeat Clinton and Gore because these candidates favored extremist homosexuals and extremist homosexuals were bad for America. This interpretation was in keeping with contemporary communications theories using television communications to increase candidate unfavorability, alter the campaign agenda in a direction unfavorable to particular candidates, and change voter evaluations in an effort to influence the election outcome.

As outlined below, there were a number of specific ways in which this ad expressly urged the defeat of Clinton and Gore: the visual degrading of the Clinton picture, colors used which were unfavorable to Clinton, music which was ominous for Clinton, unfavorable visual images were associated with Clinton and Gore, Clinton and Gore being attacked for extremist homosexual rights which were bad for America, visual text and audio voice-overs used which criticized Clinton and Gore, abrupt edits linked Clinton to negative visual images of extremist homosexual rights, issues raised which were relevant only if Clinton became president, codewords such as "vision" and "quota" that were used in ways which were unfavorable to Clinton, the visual disappearance of Clinton at the end of the ad, and the close proximity of the television ad to the national election. Let me show in greater detail how this public education ad in its totality was a de facto campaign commercial.

1) Visual Degrading of Clinton Picture

Clinton's life-like color picture appears in the opening visual of the ad on top of a waving image of an American flag. His picture then is degraded into a poor quality grayish photographic negative of Clinton. Clinton's eyes and mouth become dark and threatening. The consequence of this is to make Clinton look bad. The visual degrading of Clinton's color photograph tells viewers that Clinton is not to be seen favorably. It furthermore conveys the point that Clinton is undeserving of viewer support. The change in color from a bright positive image of Clinton into a life-less grayish image is an effort to weaken public support for Clinton.

The poor quality grayish photographic negative of Clinton parallels the Time magazine ad run by Bush in 1992. In its ad, the Bush organization reproduced a grayish photographic negative of Clinton from an April 20, 1992 Time magazine cover to exhort voters to defeat Clinton in November. The ad told voters they should defeat Clinton because of his lack of trustworthiness. The similarity between the visual degrading of Clinton's image in the Christian Action Network ad and Bush's Time magazine ad shows how visual degrading of a candidate's image is a common technique to tell voters to vote against that candidate.

2) Colors Unfavorable to Clinton

The second visual of this television ad has a clear contrast between a bright color image of the American flag and a grayish, unflattering image of Clinton. This again communicates the point that the flag is good and Clinton as president would be bad for America. It tells viewers that Clinton is different from you and me.

3) Music Ominous for Clinton

The music in this ad consists of tones and notes. It is not a song in the sense of having melodies and harmonies, but the tones set a mood which is ominous for Clinton. The music is eerie in nature and has a threatening sound. In the middle of the ad, the eerie high pitch of the music takes an ominous tone step down into a deep base note. This shift in octave level says something bad will happen if Clinton is elected president. At the end of the ad, when the picture of the American flag comes on with the Christian Action Network address, the music is less ominous. This conveys the message that America will be better off if Clinton is not elected president.

4) Unfavorable Visual Images Associated with Clinton and Gore

In this ad, extensive use is made of five different visual images describing extremist homosexual rights which are bad for America. These images are identified by the narrator as part of Clinton and Gore's vision for a better America. One visual image shown has a banner saying "Libertarians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns" accompanied by text saying "Job Quotas for Homosexuals." The second has the same banner accompanied by text saying "Special Rights for Homosexuals". The third visual shows men with their arms around one another on-screen with text saying "Homosexuals in the Armed Forces." One of the men in this photo is naked from the waist up with a rope around his neck; the end of the rope is held by his companion. A fourth visual image shows a screaming man wearing a T-shirt which says "Gay Fathers" with visual text claiming "Homosexuals Adopting Children." The fifth visual image shows chain- and leather-bound men.

These visual images are unfavorable to Clinton and Gore because they associate negative visual images of extremist homosexual rights with the candidacies of Clinton and Gore. Showing negative and extremist images of gay men while discussing Clinton's vision for a better America was an effort to undermine public support for the Democratic presidential ticket. It conveys the message that Clinton and Gore are aligned with extreme parts of society, and that viewers should vote against Clinton and Gore.

This association is in keeping with scholarly research showing that negative images are closely associated with decisions to vote against individual candidates. People generally vote for individuals they like and against those they dislike. If they dislike both candidates, they vote for the person disliked the least. Anything which decreases a candidate's favorability lowers voter support for that candidate. In fact, visually associating unfavorable images with your opponent is a common way of defeating that individual.

5) Clinton and Gore Attacked for Extremist Homosexual Rights Which Are Bad for America

The ad attacks Clinton and Gore on homosexual rights and family values. Unflattering pictures and texts are used to associate Clinton and Gore with extremist parts of the homosexual rights movement. Pictures of gay rights marches, gay men arm in arm, men wearing leather and chains, and men wearing T-shirts advocating rights for gay fathers are interspersed with text and audio voice-overs proclaiming Clinton and Gore's support for homosexual rights.

This commercial is oppositional in nature and uses graphic imagery to grab the viewer's attention and convey a message. The ad criticizes Clinton's vision and juxtaposes negative imagery with his policy views described in the ad. It shows that Clinton and Gore are out of touch with America and unsympathetic to traditional family values based on heterosexual relationships. Graphic images of gay men make the point that Clinton and Gore are supporting policy views which are out of the mainstream.

6) Visual Text and Audio Voice-Overs Criticize Clinton and Gore

The on-screen text and audio voice-overs criticize Clinton and Gore for supporting job quotas for homosexuals, creating special rights for homosexuals, having homosexuals in the armed forces, or giving homosexual couples the right to adopt children or become foster parents. The ad identifies these policy proposals with Clinton and Gore's vision for America and says these views are bad for America. Clinton's picture appears in the opening visual shot of the commercial. An audio voice-over then says "Bill Clinton's vision for a better America includes: [text on screen] Job Quotas for Homosexuals. Special Rights for Homosexuals. Homosexuals in the Armed Forces". The ad goes on to announce that "Al Gore Supports Homosexual Couples Adopting Children and Becoming Foster Parents" with text on screen proclaiming "Homosexuals Adopting Children". The message is don't vote for Clinton and Gore because their vision is bad for America. The audio road-map provided by the narrator knits together the audio and visual aspects of this ad.

7) Abrupt Edits Link Clinton to Negative Visual Images of Extremist Homosexual Rights

The sequencing of ad images in this ad ties Clinton to negative visual images based on extremist homosexual rights. Clinton's picture is closely followed by scenes and text advocating extremist homosexual rights bad for America. The abrupt editing cuts in this ad create a feeling that something bad would happen to America based on Clinton's vision of extreme homosexual rights. The ad starts looking like a pro-Clinton ad with a color image of the candidate accompanied by the American flag. The image then turns negative of Clinton and quickly shifts into a parade sequence of yelling, screaming, and disagreeable-looking gay men clothed in chains, leather, and rope. Close up photos of the marchers amplify the sight of their screaming, shouting, and general appearance. The quick editing cuts from scene to scene create a feeling that these individuals are threatening traditional American values of heterosexual relationships. The frenetic pace of the editing enhances the negative image of these scenes.

8) Issues Raised Which Are Relevant Only If Clinton Becomes President

The ad describes Clinton and Gore's support for a variety of extremist homosexual rights positions which would be bad for America, such as job quotas for homosexuals, special rights for homosexuals, having homosexuals in the armed forces, and supporting the rights of homosexual couples to adopt children and become foster parents. Some of these proposals could be implemented by presidential executive order only if Clinton won the election. For example, having homosexuals in the armed forces would require an executive order which Clinton could not do if he were governor of Arkansas. This demonstrates that the message of the ad was to have voters defeat Clinton in the election.

9) "Vision" Codeword Used in the 1992 Campaign

Two times in this ad, a codeword appears which was used in the 1992 presidential campaign. At the beginning of the ad, the announcer intones "Bill Clinton's vision for a better America includes ...". In addition, at the end of the ad, the announcer asks after reviewing Clinton's purported advocacy of homosexual rights: "Is this your vision for a better America?"

The word vision is a codeword explicitly associated with the 1992 presidential campaign. There was much public discussion of "vision" in regard to George Bush. Bush was widely criticized for lacking vision and was the object of jokes about his "Vision Thing". This codeword was part of the 1992 campaign in that it became a sign of candidates not having a political agenda and not understanding what needed to be done after the election.

The Christian Action Network ad uses codewords that communicate a message that Clinton has a vision but that it is wrong for America, that Clinton's vision is not in keeping with traditional American values of heterosexual relationships, and that Clinton's vision should be defeated in the 1992 elections by voting against Clinton.

10) "Quota" Codeword Used That was Unfavorable to Clinton

The television ad twice associates the unfavorable codeword of "quota" with Clinton's vision for America. Quotas are viewed unfavorably by a substantial majority of Americans because they are associated with unfair special rights which are not earned by the group in question. Bush in his campaign claimed Clinton was in favor of quotas. One visual text says "Job Quotas for Homosexuals". In the same scene, the narrator identifies Clinton's vision for a better America with "job quotas for homosexuals". At the end of the ad, the announcer asks if this is "your vision for a better America?". The quota codeword ties an unpopular policy with Clinton so that voters would not cast ballots for him.

11) Visual Disappearance of Clinton at End of Ad

The commercial ends with a picture of the identical waving American flag from the opening scene of the ad, but no image of Bill Clinton. This occurs right after the announcer has asked "Is this your vision for a better America?" The absence of Clinton at the end of the ad despite the presence of the flag which had accompanied Clinton in the opening scene reiterates the message that Clinton's vision for America is not consistent with traditional family values of heterosexual rights. This scene is designed to undermine public support for Clinton by saying America would be better off if Clinton were not elected president. Like the international stop sign urging the defeat of a candidate during an election campaign, this visual disappearance at the end of the ad is a powerful visual image telling voters to defeat Clinton.

12) Close Proximity of the Television Ad to the National Election

The fact that this ad aired around the country in the weeks prior to a national presidential general election strengthens the argument that the Christian Action Network was attempting to influence the national elections by encouraging voters to defeat Clinton and Gore. Television political ads which are broadcast right before an election are seen differently than those run at other times. When a presidential election is being contested, and competing candidates and independent groups are airing ads, viewers see ads with pictures of major presidential candidates and a narrator describing the vision of major candidates as political ads designed to tell citizens how to vote. The close proximity of the Christian Action Network ad to the national elections demonstrates the ad was designed to defeat Clinton and Gore.

Losing the Court Case

In the end, the FEC lost the television case against the Christian Action Network and even had to pay the group's legal fees. Despite the variety of ways which in their totality communicated the message that Clinton should not be supported, Federal District Court Judge James C. Turk of Virginia threw out the FEC suit against CAN on First Amendment grounds. In his view, "the advertisements at issue do not contain explicit words or imagery advocating electoral action. On the contrary, the advertisements represent a form of issue advocacy intended to inform the public about political issues germane to the 1992 presidential election. Therefore, the advertisements are fully protected as 'political speech' under the First Amendment. Their financing is not governed by FECA and the FEC lacks jurisdiction to bring this suit."

Judge Turk argued that no where did the ad specifically mention the November election, tell people they should vote, or ask them to cast a ballot against Clinton. The electronic imagery used in the ad was vague enough that various people could draw different messages from the spot. Whereas some might see the ad as instructing them to vote against Clinton, others could interpret the commercial as concluding that homosexual rights was a bad policy direction. The fact that the ad was run in the weeks leading up to a major national election did not, in the judge's eyes, justify restricting freedom of expression. "The First Amendment does not include a proviso stating 'except in elections' and the court refuses to accept an approach to the express advocacy standard that would effectuate such a result," Turk wrote. His ruling was upheld at the Court of Appeals.

The Explosion of Issue Advoccy

With CAN's 1995 victory in the federal district court, the way was cleared for an explosion of issue advocacy. Recognizing that the current system had big loopholes, groups in quick succession announced plans for issue ads. For example, the AFL-CIO indicated it would spent $35 million in 1996 running ads in the districts of members of Congress who opposed labor objectives. Even though these ads would be broadcast right before the election and mention the names of the Republican representatives along with unfavorable commentary on their voting records, the AFL-CIO declared these expenditures as issue advocacy and therefore not subject to federal disclosure rules.

Shortly after the labor initiative, a consortium of 35 business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Restaurant Association, and National Association of Manufacturers said it would spend $17 million on a pro-business advocacy campaign defending the targeted Republican incumbents. Because these efforts were under the guise of public education as opposed to electoral advocacy, they were not subject to federal campaign laws.

In rapid succession, groups such as the Sierra Club, National Right to Life Committee, Americans for Limited Terms, the National Right to Work Committee, American Property Rights Alliance, the Small Business Survival Committee, and the National Abortion Rights League, among others, announced that they too would take to the air waves.

For example, first term Republican House member Dick Chrysler of Michigan was the object of $2 million of advertising in 1996. According to a magazine report, "Sierra Club ads have clobbered Chrysler for voting 'to weaken clean water and air standards.' Citizen Action, a Washington consumer group, accused him (mistakenly, he says) of voting for medicare cuts. The AFL-CIO and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) piled on with their own anti-Chrylser ads." Dozens of other legislators were targeted for similar attacks.

By the time the 1996 election was over, analysts estimated that between $135 and $150 million was spent by 31 different groups on advertisements. Roughly, one out of every three dollars spent in that campaign on commercials came in the form of issue ads. Some of these commercials were targeted on the presidential campaign, but many of them were run in congressional races across the country. Ads by conservative groups attacked Democrats for raising taxes, opposing a balanced budget, or failing to support welfare reform. Liberal groups meanwhile blasted Republicans for cutting Medicare, education, and environmental programs.

What started as a trickle of issue advocacy now has become a torrent on every conceivable topic. In the last few years, groups interested in health care, tort reform, term limits, a balanced budget, and global warming have blanketed the airwaves with commercials promoting their point of view. Once the exception more than the rule, television ads have become the latest form of political volleyball on controversial issues.

The 1998 Elections

Spending on issue ads rose even more dramatically in 1998. According to an Annenberg Public Policy Center study after the election, somewhere between $275 and $340 million were spent by 77 organizations airing 423 broadcast ads. This was double the amount of issue advertising in the 1996 elections.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee was one of the largest spenders in this area. Unlike 1996, when the predominant type of spending was independent expenditures, though, the NRSC shifted in 1998 to issue ads by state parties. Overall, more than $9.9 million was transferred to the states so that local party organizations could broadcast public education advertisements. This was more than six times what had been transferred by the GOP in 1996.

On the House side, the National Republican Congressional Committee devoted $37 million to "Operation Breakout" for issue ads. About one-third of these ads criticized Democrats for Clinton's personal behavior with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Congressional Democrats meanwhile transferred around $9.6 million to state party organizations for issue ads.

Groups from the AFL-CIO and the Business Roundtable to the Sierra Club and the National Right to Life Committee spent millions on public education appeals during the 1998 elections. For example, worried about labor's $35 million expenditure in 1996, 33 business organizations formed a group called The Coalition: Americans Working for Real Change, which ran business-oriented issue spots. For its part, labor scaled back its television campaign, on the assumption that an off-year midterm election would have low turnout and instead devoted its cash to get-out-the-vote efforts.

From the Christian Action Network case, therefore, came a barrage of advertisements that now are about as common as candidate-sponsored advertisements. Rather than rely just on candidate spending, parties and groups are supplementing official efforts with expenditures that fall outside of public disclosure.

Problems of Issue Advocacy

Issue advocacy campaigns now have become more the norm than the exception. Once a sporadic part of electioneering activities, they currently occur regularly as a part of closely-contested races. Indeed, interest groups and parties target competitive races for public education advertisements on the assumption that issue-based commercials in these kinds of contests can deliver messages that would be unseemly for candidates themselves.

Because issue advocacy has become such a regular part of American elections, its outpouring has created a number of difficulties for our political system. Foremost are the problems of secrecy, disclosure, and poor accountability. Issue advocacy takes place outside of any required public disclosure of spending or contributors. Direct gifts and campaign contributions to legislators must be disclosed, but there are no rules requiring disclosure of issue advocacy campaigns because the courts say they are not designed to influence the election.

Our current campaign finance system is based on the public's right to know who is funding campaigns, how much is being spent, and in the case of presidential campaigns, limits on how much each candidate can spend. Without detailed and timely information on campaign finance, voters are in a weaker position to evaluate candidate credentials and judge who best can represent their views.

Another problem relates to how issue ads have debased the civility and content of campaign discourse. The types of appeals found in issue ads tend to be more negative and less issue-oriented. For example, in 1998, 70 percent of issue ads were financed by the political parties. In comparing party-sponsored issue ads to candidate commercials, researchers found that 59.5 percent of issue ads attacked the opposition, compared to 23.9 percent of candidate spots. As stated by study director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, politicians have worked out a good cop/bad cop routine in which parties attack, while candidates advocate.

This is quite similar to the 1988 two-track system used by the Bush campaign in regard to the Horton independent expenditure. What started out as a novel electoral strategy a decade ago currently is taken for granted. Issue ads and independent expenditures allow candidates to bypass spending and disclosure laws while also giving them more strategic flexibility in who delivers hard-hitting messages.

Court rulings which define issue advocacy as distinctive from electioneering fail to see how new campaign practices and political strategies erase the line between issue and express political advocacy. The clear distinction drawn by Buckley more than 20 years ago has been overwhelmed by shifts in technology and tactics. Advertisements featuring the name and likeness of candidates in the few months leading up to an election are seen by the public and political opponents as election ads. For all practical purposes, they are campaign appeals and need to be subject to current rules.

At a more fundamental level, trends in the issue advocacy area exacerbate equity problems in American politics. Because of their high cost, television ads as a strategic resource simply are not available to most organized interests. Only a small percentage of groups are able to afford these new political communications tactics. It generally takes several million dollars of ad buys in national politics to get noticed, a sum that clearly is beyond the means of many citizens groups, public interest organizations, and neighborhood associations.

As democratic theorist E. E. Schattschneider predicted long ago, this inequity in financial resources has created an interest group situation where "the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent." Money always has been crucial in American politics, but as advocacy requires access to financial resources, it becomes an even more serious barrier to democratic government.

The risk is that our entire system of political debate will become skewed in favor of the well-organized and well-financed over less advantaged interests. To the extent that financial resources distinguish serious from less serious players, interests which have access to money are able to dominate public deliberation and election campaigns. Established organizations such as business interests, trade associations, and large labor unions, are particularly advantaged because of their financial resources and professional staffs. Minority groups, citizen associations, and public interest organizations, in contrast, are at a systematic disadvantage in television advocacy battles.

At one level, legal concern over First Amendment rights of free expression in this area is perfectly understandable. The Bill of Rights is the bedrock of American democracy. Freedom of expression is crucial to our system of democratic government. Anything that restricts freedom of speech is potentially damaging to democratic discourse.

But what often is ignored in discussions of money and politics is how our current campaign finance system needs to balance freedom of expression with fairness in political competition. If moneyed interests on either side of the political spectrum secretly can finance public education ads rights before an election, it eviscerates federal disclosure rules. Simply by labeling campaign advertisements as issue advocacy, both groups and parties have to disclose nothing about their campaign finances. They are subject to no requirements about naming their contributors or disclosing their spending.

In the long-run, this endangers the public's right to know who is behind candidates for office. It takes us back to the secrecy and deception of the pre-Watergate system for funding American elections. It exposes candidates to risk from controversial fundraising tactics that backfire. It limits the amount of information that is available to the general public. It complicates the task of reporters whose job it is to follow the money trail. In the end, it is a system that serves no one's interests particularly well.


Darrell M. West, Checkbook Democracy: How Money Corrupts Political Campaigns, Northeastern University Press, 2000.

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), see note 52.

Eliza Newlin Carney, "Air Strikes," National Journal, June 15, 1996, pp. 1313-1317 and Peter Stone, "Business Strikes Back," National Journal, October 25, 1997, pp. 2130-2133.

See Martin Mawyer, "Dole's Lost Army of Christian Soldiers," Washington Post, October 13, 1996, p. C4 and Martin Mawyer, "Same-Sex Marriage is Oxymoronic," Providence Journal, January 10, 1996, p. B6.

See FEC v. Christian Action Network, Inc., Civil Action No. 94-0082-L, 894 F. Supp. 946, 952 (W.D. Va. 1995).

Darrell M. West, "An Analysis of Ads Run by the Christian Action Network, Inc. in 1992," February 6, 1995.

Darrell M. West, Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1996, 2nd edition, Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997.

James C. Turk Memorandum Opinion in Federal Election Commission v. Christian Action Network, Civil Action No. 94-0082-L, p. 2.

James C. Turk Memorandum Opinion in Federal Election Commission v. Christian Action Network, Civil Action No. 94-0082-L, p. 23.

Eliza Newlin Carney, "Air Strikes," National Journal, June 15, 1996, pp. 1313-1317.

Eliza Newlin Carney, "Air Strikes," National Journal, June 15, 1996, pp. 1313-1317.

Eliza Newlin Carney, "Air Strikes," National Journal, June 15, 1996, pp. 1313-1317.

Deborah Beck, Paul Taylor, Jeffrey Stanger, and Douglas Rivlin, "Issue Advocacy During the 1996 Campaign," Report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, September 16, 1997.

Darrell M. West and Burdett A. Loomis, The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want, New York: Norton, 1998.

Darrell M. West, Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1996, 2nd edition, Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997, p. 169.

Annenberg Public Policy Center Report, "Issue Advocacy Advertising During the 1997-1998 Election Cycle, December 1, 1998.

Paul Hendrie, "Sneak Attacks: Issue Ads Evade Limits," Capital Eye, Washington, D.C.: Center for Responsive Politics, December, 1998, p. 5.

Paul Hendrie, "Sneak Attacks: Issue Ads Evade Limits," Capital Eye, Washington, D.C.: Center for Responsive Politics, December, 1998, p. 5.

Peter Stone, "Business Strikes Back," National Journal, October 25, 1997, pp. 2130-2133 and Peter Stone, "Lobbying & Law," National Journal, July 20, 1998.

Alliance for Better Campaigns, "Party Issue Ads Become Weapon of First Resort, Study Finds," The Political Standard, December 1998/January 1999, p. 3.

Darrell M. West and Burdett A. Loomis, The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want, New York: Norton, 1998.

E. E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.