- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

Wasn’t there a blessed time when there was a pause in the presidential campaign between the summer conventions and the fall free-for-all? Wasn’t there an unspoken but universally accepted tradition that the campaign didn’t really start till after Labor Day? Or did I just imagine it? Has my nostalgia been working overtime again?

Wasn’t there also a time when an honorable discharge was an honorable discharge, no questions asked? And a Purple Heart was a Purple Heart? Ditto, a Bronze Star and Silver Star? Even 30 years later. And nobody asked if the wearer had bought ‘em in a pawn shop.

You have to wonder which is sadder — the bottom-of-the-barrel accusation against a presidential candidate, or the candidate’s over-the-top reaction to it?

John Kerry claims his dishonorable opponent hasn’t sufficiently denounced TV commercials attacking the senator’s war record. George Bush has only denounced them. Not good enough.

What’s the president supposed to do — jump up and down and tear out his hair? Throw a Howard Dean fit? Mr. Kerry says Mr. Bush should make the band of zealots behind these Swift Boat commercials take them off the air. Now. Maybe yesterday.

Under current convoluted laws, getting an independent political organization to pull its ads would violate the campaign finance “reform” laws. A presidential candidate isn’t supposed to coordinate his campaign in any way with these outfits.

By law, President Bush can no more stop those commercials than he could start them. You might as well demand that John Kerry call off MoveOn.org, which has been smearing George W. Bush for months. Maybe years.

The Kerry campaign has been playing a game of Six Degrees of Separation, claiming the Bush campaign is behind these scurrilous commercials because some of the people involved with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth also have been involved with the Bush campaign. Ergo, the president is guilty by association.

These independent operators are called 527 organizations because Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code lets them operate as nonprofit, tax-exempt outfits so long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with an official presidential campaign.

The 527s have proliferated on the left and, now that the right has caught on, will doubtless cover that side of the political spectrum, too. None of which bodes well for the level of taste in American political campaigns.

But this explosion of free-lance muck actually has its benefits. For one, it lets you see how each candidate reacts under pressure. Mr. Bush simply rose above it and rode out the mudstorm over his National Guard service. Mr. Kerry has struck out at his critics, his opponent and in all directions.

Now Mr. Kerry wants the Federal Election Commission to protect him. If it weren’t so early in the campaign, his reaction might be described as desperate. Why doesn’t he just rise above it, instead of focus even more attention on these ads?

Can it be because the Kerry campaign’s polls say these sleazy commercials are working? If so, why? Was it because the candidate himself talked so much about his heroism, or had others talk about it at the Democratic National Convention, that people got a little sick of it? There’s something about being told over and over what a hero somebody is that just makes you want to chuck a mudball at him.

What has George W. Bush to say about all this? He says all these 527 organizations should just go away. Granted, they’re loud as a bad suit. But can good taste be imposed by law? And should it be? Where does a decent restraint in politics end and censorship begin? Answer: When the law does the restraining.

One of the saddest recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings was its decision upholding the McCain-Feingold “reforms” that barred ads from these independent groups during the last 30 days of a campaign. That way lies the death of the First Amendment.

Let ‘em talk, all of ‘em, early and late, and let the voters decide. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about?

Maybe the problem isn’t there are too many 527s out there but not enough. Why let either George Soros or a bunch of rich Texans monopolize the political conversation? Let anybody who wants in on this quadrennial campaign and circus join the fray. It’s a free country. Or should be.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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