In its rush to paint yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that struck down an issue ad ban contained in the so-called McCain-Feingold Law, the Chicago Tribune described the case as a win for President Bush and the GOP, even though the Bush administration's lawyers lost the case in question and even though the case benefits liberal activist groups as much as it does conservatives. What's more, Bush's appointees to the court actually restrained the conservative majority from taking a bigger swipe at the campaign finance law.
Here's the lede from the Tribune staffer David Savage:
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave President Bush and Republican leaders two important 5-4 victories Monday by clearing the way for corporate-funded broadcast ads before next year's election and by shielding the White House's "faith-based initiative" from challenge in the courts.
Oh really? President Bush signed the campaign finance bill into law, it was his Federal Election Commission that pleaded and lost the case, and he's not able to run again for reelection, yet somehow he won yesterday by virtue of his Federal Election Commission losing?
What's more, Republicans, conservatives, and business interests can certainly benefit from the change in the law, but so can Democrats, liberals, and labor unions, a point that the Washington Post's Robert Barnes picked up on in his reporting, which tracked favorable reaction from labor and business leaders:
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney cheered that "a majority of the court has finally and emphatically embraced the simple truth, that the First Amendment abides no law that suppresses independent speech about legislators and candidates, at least absent an explicit call for their election or defeat."
Steven J. Law, chief legal officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the court sent a clear message that "regulating speech advertising in the name of reform may have gone too far."
The Tribune's Savage continued his slanted coverage by conjuring up supposedly nasty ghosts and ghouls of politics past, but he didn't explain why a return to more issue ads would be bad for voters, other than to spook readers with visions of big corporations and unions dancing in their heads:
The ruling in the election case is likely to be felt by voters starting early next year. It could mean a return to the 1990s when television viewers were often urged to "send a message" to an unspecified candidate about his or her stand on a certain issue.
These advertisements often were paid for with corporate or union money, and they were banned by the McCain-Feingold Act five years ago. The Supreme Court upheld the ban in a 5-4 decision before the 2004 election.
Of course, at no point did Savage mention that major corporate-owned media outlets like his newspaper [owned by the Tribune Company (NYSE: TRB)], were never included in the campaign finance reform bill, nor why their First Amendment protections are sacrosanct while corporate funding for interest group issue ads is not.
One final point of note. While Savage saw the ruling from the Court as a major victory for President George W. Bush -- who nominated conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito-- the fact of the matter is that it was conservative-leaning justices appointed by Reagan and Bush the Elder who wanted to strike down more provisions of the law.
Again from Barnes of the Washington Post (emphasis mine):
Roberts established a new rule: "A court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate."
While they agreed with the outcome, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas called that test "impermissibly vague" and said the entire provision should be declared unconstitutional. Alito said he would be sympathetic to that if this test proved unworkable.
In other words, while Bush's conservative appointees were crucial to the 5-4 outcome, by no means were the Bush picks leading a wild-eyed charge at overturning the law before them. In deed, thanks to judicial restraint by Alito and Roberts, the rulings issued from the bench yesterday were relatively narrow in scope and precedent.