As Super Tuesday gets going, it's worth reflecting that so far, it's been a remarkably clean election. Sure, there have been some bumps -- a few million robo calls here, a fringe swift boating group there -- but all in all, it's been pretty easy going. Which is sure to make the general election all the more jarring by contrast.
We've already gotten a few glimpses of it. There are sure to be hordes of outside groups, funded by tens of millions of dollars, making their presences known throughout the country, not only in the presidential contest, but also in Congressional races. As for now, the groups are mostly revving their engines.
The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on the legal efforts of a veteran Clinton-hating outfit, Citizens United, to promote their straightforwardly titled documentary, "Hillary: The Movie" without constraints (not to worry, Obama supporters: the group is working on "Obama: The Movie" too just in case). It's a fight that, if successful, could liberate what few restrictions these sorts of groups have to deal with:
"Hillary: The Movie" includes a series of interviews with Clinton critics, including Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris. "If you want to hear about the Clinton scandals of the past and present, you have it here!," Citizens United, Bossie's group, says on its website.
The group, a nonprofit corporation, is free to promote its movie and sell DVDs on itswebsite. But one provision of McCain-Feingold makes it illegal to use corporate or union money for "any broadcast, cable or satellite communication" if it "refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office" within 30 days of a primary election or a convention or within 60 days of a general election....
The McCain-Feingold Act, which went into effect in 2002, was written broadly to bar such election-eve ads. It covered nonprofit corporations as well as moneymaking firms. And it was triggered by the mere mention of the candidate's name.
That posed an obvious problem for [David] Bossie and his group:
"How can you advertise this movie without mentioning the name 'Hillary'?" asked James Bopp Jr., a 1st Amendment lawyer representing Citizens United....
In December, the group said it wanted to run 30-second ads on Fox News and other television outlets calling attention to the movie and went to court seeking an order that would shield it from the law. Bopp argued that what he termed "core political speech" deserved full free-speech protection under the 1st Amendment.
Bopp literally got laughed out of court when he tried to argue to an appeals court that the movie was a news documentary in the mold of 60 Minutes and Nova. But he's appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, where he hopes at least to strike down a provision that would force him to disclose the group's contributors. The court will decide later this month whether they'll hear the case.
Whether Bopp succeeds or not, it's an indication of what's to come. And keep in mind that even the Federal Election Commission, the notoriously feeble watchdog for this sort of stuff, has been shut down for the foreseeable future. So it's bound to be a bumpy ride.