Are 527s evil?

President Bush seems to think so.

He didn't use that word, of course, but he'd like to keep all these independent groups from running campaign ads.

Which, as far as I can tell, would eviscerate the First Amendment.

Now I may not like some of the ads. You may not like some of the ads. Some of them may stretch the truth and worse.

But do we really want to say that business (the Chamber of Commerce is about to roll out a 527), labor, environmentalists, veterans, liberals, conservatives and vegetarians can't put forth their point of view at campaign time?

Politically, of course, Bush would love to get the 527s off the air because most of them have been liberal groups such as MoveOn that are bashing him. And the pox-on-all-their-houses approach enables the president to avoid criticizing the swift boat veterans ad that, despite the group's credibility problems, have hurt John Kerry. The senator, of course, showed no concern about the $60 million or so that the liberal 527s spent attacking the president--with help from his former campaign manager, among others--until the swift boat spot led to him to demand a denunciation from Bush.

My problem with independent groups in the past has always been their shadowy nature, as when journalists scrambled to find out who was airing some pretty nasty anti-McCain ads in 2000. They turned out to be financed by Sam Wyly, a Texas investment banker with ties to Bush, prompting McCain to charge that Bush's "cronies" were "perverting the political process" through "dirty money." Sound familiar?

"I frankly thought we had gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill," Bush told reporters in Crawford. "I thought we were going to once and for all get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in, and not be held to account for the advertising."

No one briefed him on what was in the bill?

The McCain-Feingold law (signed unenthusiastically by Bush) tightened disclosure requirements on such groups, which are legally barred from "coordinating" their efforts with the presidential campaigns. It also bars them from using unregulated soft money in the last 60 days of a general election.

Candidates, of course, get the best of both worlds--supporters raising money and using harsher ads than the campaigns would feel comfortable airing, plus the all-purpose excuse that they had nothing to do with it and aren't responsible.

But you can't stop this sort of thing without unacceptable censorship. And why shouldn't these advocates be heard? Voters are smart. They'll sort it all out. It's not like the candidates' ads have been models of meticulous fairness.

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi | uses the H-word:

"Just like campaign finance 'reform,' hypocrisy can be bipartisan.

"On March 20, 2002, John Kerry called on President Bush to support a campaign finance bill as 'a way to break free from the status quo,' but warned, 'However, as with any reform measure, there are always going to be possibilities for abuse. The fact that some people will try to skirt the law is not a reason for us to fail to take this incremental movement toward repairing the system.'

"On March 27, 2002, Bush signed the 'Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,' declaring, 'I believe that this legislation, although far from perfect, will improve the current financing system for federal campaigns.'

"Imperfect the law was and skirt it both parties did -- with Democrats leading the way. Now Democrats and Republicans are calling upon each other to denounce a situation both are exploiting."

Newsweek/WashPost | columnist Robert Samuelson finds the whole system silly:

"The Kerry campaign has asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to ban the Swift Boat ads; the Bush campaign similarly wants the FEC to suppress the pro-Democrat 527 groups. We've arrived at this juncture because it's logically impossible both to honor the First Amendment and to regulate campaign finance effectively. We can do one or the other -- but not both. Unfortunately, Congress and the Supreme Court won't admit the choice. The result is the worst of both worlds. We gut the First Amendment and don't effectively regulate campaign finance."

The Supreme Court "has rejected limits on overall campaign spending by candidates, parties or groups. Limiting spending, the court says, would violate free speech. Spending enables candidates to reach voters through TV and other media. Unfortunately, this artful distinction doesn't work. If groups can spend any amount on campaigns, their spending can easily become unlimited contributions."

Boy, you can't accuse swift boat adviser Ben Ginsberg of hiding out after quitting as the Bush campaign's lawyer. He went on Wolf, O'Reilly, Paula and "Nightline" yesterday.

"The Bush campaign's top outside lawyer, who said on Tuesday that he had given legal advice to the group of veterans attacking Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War record, said today that he was resigning from the campaign because his activities were becoming a 'distraction' to Mr. Bush's re-election efforts," reports the New York Times. |

"The lawyer, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, said that the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, called him last month to ask for his help and that he had agreed. The group has criticized Mr. Kerry's war record and his antiwar activism in a book, television commercials and appearances on various news programs, especially on cable.

"'I cannot begin to express my sadness that my legal representations have become a distraction from the critical issues at hand in this election,' Mr. Ginsberg told the president in a letter. . . .

"The Kerry-Edwards campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, said today that Mr. Ginsberg's resignation 'confirms the extent of those connections.' 'Now we know why George Bush refuses to specifically condemn these false ads,' she said.

"And in another sign of how the fierce debate about Mr. Kerry's Vietnam record has continued to dominate both campaigns, Mr. Kerry today dispatched two fellow Vietnam veterans -- former Senator Max Cleland, Democrat of Georgia, and Jim Rassman, a former Kerry comrade in Vietnam -- to Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., to urge him to condemn the television advertisements challenging Senator Kerry's military record."

Look at this: Bush gets a bounce before his convention, according to the Los Angeles Times |,1,891368.story?coll=la-home-headlines:

"President Bush heads into next week's Republican National Convention with voters moving slightly in his direction since July amid signs that Sen. John F. Kerry has been nicked by attacks on his service in Vietnam, a Times poll has found.

"For the first time this year in a Times survey, Bush led Kerry in the presidential race, drawing 49% among registered voters, compared with 46% for the Democrat. In a Times poll just before the Democratic convention last month, Kerry held a 2-percentage-point advantage over Bush.

"That small shift from July was within the poll's margin of error. But it fit with other findings in the Times poll showing the electorate edging toward Bush over the past month on a broad range of measures, from support for his handling of Iraq to confidence in his leadership and honesty."

A note of reason from the leader of the McCainiacs:

"Sen. John McCain argued Wednesday that Americans need to get past Vietnam, spreading blame for the bitter political debate among both presidential candidates, a federal agency and a veterans group attacking Sen. John Kerry's combat record," says USA Today. |

"'I'm sick and tired of re-fighting the Vietnam War. And most importantly, I'm sick and tired of opening the wounds of the Vietnam War, which I've spent the last 30 years trying to heal,' the Arizona Republican said at a lunch with USA TODAY and Gannett News Service. 'It's offensive to me, and it's angering to me that we're doing this. It's time to move on.'"

Fred Barnes | sees JFK playing dodge ball:

"John Kerry is very good at the political dodge. This consists of raising one issue to avoid talking about another. He's cleverly done this twice in recent weeks. First, he concentrated on his Vietnam war experience in his speech at the Democratic convention to avert discussion of his dovish Senate record on national security. Then this week, he blamed President Bush for attacks on his Vietnam performance to escape from addressing the Swift Boat veterans who were his actual attackers. And he may have to come up with a third dodge to keep from having to explain his 1971 testimony alleging war crimes and atrocities on a daily basis by American forces during the Vietnam war.

"The dodge has worked well for Kerry. At the Democratic convention last month, he didn't bother to defend his Senate positions on defense and foreign policy. In his acceptance speech, he devoted only 73 words to his two decades in the Senate. Instead, he surrounded himself with Vietnam veterans and insisted the best window on his leadership as president was that the men who'd served with him in Vietnam were now backing his presidential campaign. The result: little discussion in the media or the political community of his Senate record at the convention and since then.

"That may change as early as next week when Republicans gather for their convention in New York City. No doubt Republican speakers will go after Kerry for favoring cuts in intelligence and Pentagon spending, endorsing the nuclear freeze and deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, opposing the Reagan doctrine of supporting anticommunist guerillas in Nicaragua and elsewhere, and voting against the Iraq war. But Kerry's campaign has a ready-made answer, one it's already used. The campaign's response is that Kerry won medals and was wounded in Vietnam and thus would be a strong commander-in-chief...

"That dodge has diverted much of the press from examining the specific charges against Kerry for allegedly fabricating or exaggerating what he did as a Naval officer in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970."

That's funny, I thought I'd read a whole lot of investigative pieces on that subject in the past week.

Salon's Tim Grieve | offers grim choices for Kerry:

"The bad news for John Kerry: Talking about the Swift boat smears won't make them go away. The worse news for John Kerry: Nothing else he can do is going to work, either.

"The Swift Boat Veterans' charges have largely been debunked. Reporters at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have both dismantled the allegations; on Tuesday morning, an L.A. Times editorial declared: 'These charges against John Kerry are false. Or at least there is no good evidence that they are true.'

"But in the non-condemnation condemnations of the president, in the slippery 'If so many people say something it must be true' logic of former Sen. Bob Dole, in the echoes that bounce back and forth between Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and spill over onto CNN, the allegations against Kerry have taken hold. Even if they're not true -- and by all credible accounts, they're not -- the allegations raise doubts in the minds of voters paying just enough attention to know that there's some 'question' about Kerry's war record.

"The Kerry campaign clearly sees some advantage in keeping the issue alive -- in further debunking the charges, in tying them ever tighter to George Bush and Karl Rove -- but Democratic strategists are increasingly concerned."

He proceeds to quote some concerned strategists.

The Boston Globe |, meanwhile, profiles swift boat veteran leader John O'Neill.

The Note | offers a couple of swift observations:

"Kerry might be saved from some of the damage from scrutiny of his anti-war protest period because the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are too dirty to be effective messengers on that (or anything else) and they pollute the issue for anyone else to use, even the Bush campaign.

"The Kerry campaign still has the Bush/National Guard card to play, and they just might, despite Kerry claiming (sometimes) that it isn't appropriate."

The New Republic's Tom Frank | grades Kerry's Comedy Central moment:

"The surprise, in the end, was that Kerry did okay. In fact, the Kerry who's reputed to be such a good 'closer' has finally started to make some appearances. His performance on 'The Daily Show' indicated important achievements on a number of fronts in the campaign.

"For one, the sartorial choices have become more prudent. Kerry made no attempt to dress like, say, James Dean, nor did he bring his Dad-at-the-soccer-game-after-work look from the campaign trail into the television studio. He wore the kind of outfit he was probably born in: a grey suit and light-blue tie. Sure, commending Kerry for this does not suggest the highest of expectations, but, then again, he has helped to lower them.

"For another, he didn't try to be funny. Back in 1988, Kerry got into trouble for repeating a joke about Vice President-elect Dan Quayle--'Somebody told me the other day that the Secret Service has orders that if George Bush is shot, they're to shoot Quayle'--which caused a little dust-up because some reporters happened to hear him say it. Kerry probably vowed at the time never to be funny again, and he's followed through with admirable consistency. Not even ardent Kerry supporters have wasted much time suggesting otherwise.

"Instead Kerry chose to throw his head back and laugh graciously at Stewart's jokes, as if he were actually enjoying the whole experience. (He also kept a bemused look on his face that worked reasonably well.) The comedy was left, wisely, to Stewart, and Kerry simply played along as best he could. This was a great relief, since at campaign rallies Kerry has been opening with a variety of jokes (wearily chronicled by The New York Times last Sunday) that are probably best left unmentioned in this space. Kerry apparently knew better than to bring this material across the Hudson River. All of these things indicate good decision-making going on somewhere in the campaign.

"Most remarkable for Kerry was his ability to speak in a more or less comprehensible manner. He had talking points ready but didn't seem determined to drone through all 79 of them, which he might have tried a few months back--again, not a milestone in human achievement, but we're talking Kerry achievement."

Speaking in a more or less comprehensible manner. Talk about a low bar.

Slate's Dana Stevens | is less charitable:

"Kerry's charisma was less than zero: It was negative. He was a charm vacuum, forced to actually borrow mojo from audience members. He was a desiccated husk, a tin man who really didn't have a heart. His lack of vibrancy, his utter dearth of sex appeal made Al Gore look like Charo. (I've always found Al Gore sort of hot, actually, like a stuffy high school principal just begging to be broken down. But I have some issues with authority.)

"Watching Kerry strike out was especially heartbreaking given that Stewart was pitching not just softballs but marshmallows. Puffy interview marshmallows with rainbow sprinkles on them, and Kerry was letting them sail by as if he planned to get to first base on a walk."