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The GOP's Muzzle

By Ryan Sager

"Republicans do not need, and should not attempt, to muzzle their opponents."

Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? Howard Dean?

Try Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), presumed 2008 presidential candidate, in a laudable attempt to return the Republican Party to its historic role as opponent of political-speech regulation. While Newt Gingrich has been railing against 2002's McCain-Feingold legislation in recent months, Allen's attack on the GOP's current effort to regulate so-called 527 groups -- independent organizations banned from coordinating with candidates or parties -- makes him the first top-tier '08 candidate to come out swinging against campaign-finance "reform."

Whether it's enough to force a serious confrontation on the issue between status quo politicians such as Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Bill Frist and the fed-up conservative base remains to be seen. But it's at least a start. And where the various candidates line up on the issue over the next year and a half will tell Republican primary voters quite a lot about who's on board with Karl Rove's vision of a permanent, principle-less majority and who's ready to ready to rethink the mistakes of the last five-plus years.

Allen's attack on speech regulation (and threat to aid a filibuster) comes in a letter to Frist dated June 9, and is signed by six of his Senate colleagues: Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Mike Enzi (R-Wy.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and David Vitter (R-La.). It has received little attention from the press, but it's quite a stinging rebuke to the party's leadership.

Republicans, of course, used to be against allowing politicians to decide what's good (legal) and bad (illegal) speech -- because, oddly enough, when politicians have that power, they tend to come to the conclusion that any speech that could cost them their jobs is the bad kind. A president named George H.W. Bush vetoed campaign-finance reform. Speaker Newt Gingrich did everything he could to keep such bills off the House floor in the 1990s, and Majority Leader Trent Lott did the same in the Senate.

Now, however, senators who stood firm against McCain-Feingold in 2002, including Lott and Frist, and House members who did the same, such as one Dennis Hastert, have changed their minds. With the GOP firmly entrenched as the party of incumbents, they've apparently decided that if campaign-finance regulation can't be stopped, it might as well be used to ruthlessly go after their political opponents. And since Democratic 527s bring in more money than Republican ones, they simply must be destroyed.

Allen and his cosigners, however, don't see it that way: "As Republicans, we strongly believe in freedom, including freedom of expression and association. We campaigned for office on the principles of a limited and constitutional government. As elected officials we took an oath of office to 'support this Constitution'," the letter's opening states. "The First Amendment's dictates are a model of clarity."

And indeed they are: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech."

But perhaps Allen & Co. didn't get the memo. The modern Republican Party can't quite grasp the plain meaning of the Constitution. After all, its leader, President Bush, signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, acknowledging that he believed it to be unconstitutional -- and leaving it to a bunch of well-known activist judges on the Supreme Court to figure out.

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, went along under the theory that the law would hobble the Democrats, who relied more on the soft money that the bill banned than did the GOP. Fast forward to 2004, when Democratic 527s such as the Voter Fund and America Coming Together raised tens of millions of dollars before their conservative counterparts had even left the gate, and Republicans decided it was time for a massive crackdown on this new "loophole."

The Republican Party's change of heart on campaign-finance reform, indeed, has tracked neatly with its overall surrender to the idea of "big-government conservatism," such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. Each of these bills betrayed timeless conservative, small-government principles to purchase temporary political gain.

Or, as Democratic campaign-finance attorney Robert Bauer recently put it: "Campaign finance regulation is the work of government, bureaucratic government, and its natural course is growth in volume, complexity, and intrusiveness. This is a price that the Republicans have been prepared to pay for political advantage."

Not all Republicans, though. Allen has cast his lot with the dissenters, and for whatever other flaws he might have as a candidate, on that he is to be congratulated. John McCain, for his part, has thrown in with the defenders of incumbency and government control of political speech -- as, it seems, has Frist.

What, then, of Rudy, Romney, and the others? Will they stand with the muzzlers? Or with the Constitution? The base will no doubt be watching.

Ryan Sager ( is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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