Mitch McConnell

The First Amendment’s reluctant defender.

Mitch McConnell fits snugly into the liberal profile of the GOP’s Snidely Whiplash: He’s unrelentingly partisan. He comes from an antebellum slave state. He looks like Steve Forbes.

And, of course, there’s his opposition to campaign-finance reform. On CFR, McConnell relishes his role as a mustache-twirling vaudevillian, rankling goo-goos and editorial page writers across the country. But McConnell’s selection of fellow villain Ken Starr as one of the two lead lawyers for a legal challenge against CFR added to the suspicion among reformers that he’s insincere on the issue. Reform advocates suspect McConnell is less interested in the First Amendment than he is in lining his own pockets and swimming, Scrooge McDuck-style, through the gobs of cash he raises.

But what if he’s serious? For 15 years, McConnell has served eloquently as the leading opponent of CFR, writing op-eds, testifying before congressional committees, and making frequent TV appearances to discuss his favorite issue. Over that period, reform advocates have gradually softened their position, dropping their support for taxpayer-financed campaigns and restrictions on how much candidates can spend—two provisions McConnell has consistently and adamantly opposed. In response, McConnell has been uncompromising. In fact, his stance has become more extreme. He’s an unusual Beltway creature: the pragmatist who became an ideologue.

McConnell wasn’t always so inflexible. His opposition to CFR was originally rooted merely in his belief that it would hurt Republicans, so he supported reforms that would help the GOP. In the late 1980s, he decried the nefarious influence of “special interests” and political action committees, and in 1990 he drafted a bill that would have banned PACs, halved the amount of out-of-state donations a candidate could receive, and banned soft money. All those changes would have benefited Republicans at the time.

Over time, however, McConnell’s grab bag of self-interested positions shifted into an abstract ideology: All money in politics is an objective good, so the more the better. He quotes reverently from Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court decision that enshrined political spending as a First Amendment right: “The First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one’s political views is wasteful, excessive or unwise.” According to the decision, only the desire to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption can justify limits on political spending. By wholeheartedly embracing that rationale, McConnell has come full circle: He now opposes a campaign-finance reform law despite the increasingly persuasive case that it will benefit Republican candidates more than Democratic ones. (Click here for an explanation by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg.)

McConnell’s transformation into full-blown ideologue took place gradually. Only a year after drafting his 1990 anti-PAC bill, he backtracked from it by opposing out-of-state contribution limits as discriminatory (for unfairly limiting the speech rights of citizens who want to support congressional candidates across the country) and unconstitutional (“There is nothing about out-of-state money that makes it more corrupting than in-state money”). A few years later, he went a few steps further and defended the idea of special interests, calling the phrase “a pejorative term for ‘the people.’ ” (Though, like most politicians, he’s not above using the phrase demagogically when it’s in his interest.) By 1997, he was arguing that a ban on soft money would be challenged in the Supreme Court. And by the end of the decade, he was declaring that all campaign-finance laws, including existing ones, created more problems than they solved.

McConnell is no civil libertarian. But his obsession with the First Amendment implications of CFR has sensitized him to free-speech issues that he previously considered trivial. In the early ‘90s, he unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would allow victims of sex crimes to sue hard-core pornography publishers “if a link could be shown between the crime and specific pornographic material.” McConnell defended the bill with case law showing that obscenity and child pornography were not protected by the First Amendment, but he now admits the bill was a mistake. His opposition to pornography got him into trouble with civil libertarians again later in the decade when he voted for the Communications Decency Act, a bill to regulate speech on the Internet that was ultimately slapped down by the Supreme Court.

And yet he dissented twice from the Contract With America in 1995, both times in defense of political speech. He prominently opposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning, an amendment that he had supported in the past. And he opposed term limits, which he connected to his opposition to campaign-finance reform: “Both would take from citizens the right to support candidates of their choosing—one by barring the giving of private campaign contributions, the other by barring the giving of a vote. Both proposals restrict freedom. Both suppose problems which do not exist. Both are popular. Both are wrong.”

Like his adversary John McCain, McConnell enjoys speaking what he sees as unpopular truths. Except his come without any populist veneer. Do people with money have more access to politicians? Absolutely, McConnell told the Washington Post. “Just like the Washington Post has a bigger mouth than the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky. It’s bigger. It has more money.” Or take this one: “I can’t think of a more appropriate time to hear from lobbyists than when they have a bill before Congress.” Or these: “Bipartisanship is overrated,” and “People are yearning for gridlock.”

McConnell added another one during the term limits battle, when he called Congress “the only workplace in America where experience is inherently bad.” He’s the consummate professional pol who’s never wanted to do anything else. He was student body president in high school and again in college at the University of Louisville. At law school at the University of Kentucky, he served as president of the student bar association. Since launching his political career, he hasn’t lost an election.

But he lost the congressional CFR battle, and he may have only himself to blame. During the 1998 and 2000 elections, he served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, charged with directing funds to GOP candidates. His political instincts failed him: The GOP gained no seats in ‘98 after setting a goal of gaining five, and in 2000 the party lost five senators, four of whom opposed campaign-finance reform.

Is that the end? Have the Dudley Do-Rights finally defeated McConnell? The Supreme Court will have the final word. But keep this in mind: In 1997, McConnell told National Journal that the only campaign-finance reform he advocated was a doubling of hard-money limits and then indexing those limits to inflation. The CFR bill President Bush signed into law Wednesday implemented the first part of that suggestion by raising the individual donor limit to $2,000. That’s the only portion of the law that’s guaranteed to stand up to the scrutiny of nine justices. McConnell may be halfway to his goal.