Blame the Supreme Court, not McCain
I would defend McCain’s comment from another angle: McCain was simply restating a principle set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago in Buckley v. Valeo, the seminal and still-governing campaign finance case. In Buckley, the Court upheld federal caps on campaign contributions after finding that
“the weighty interests served by restricting the size of financial contributions to political candidates are sufficient to justify the limited effect upon First Amendment freedoms.”The Court identified the “weighty interests” as “limit[ing] the actuality and appearance of corruption resulting from large individual financial contributions.” In other words, First Amendment freedoms can be trumped, at least to some degree, by good-government policies.
My point is not that we should all come around to John McCain’s way of thinking. Instead, it is that the threat to free speech posed by campaign finance laws will be eliminated only when the Supreme Court corrects its 30-year-old error. Once the Supreme Court gets it right, we won’t have to worry about what John McCain thinks of the First Amendment. Until then, politicians of all stripes will find campaign finance regulation too seductive to resist.