Rich Lowry: The Kochs ride again

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, February 1, 2015 7:59pm
  • Opinion

It was interesting while it lasted, but the 2016 election is now officially “bought.”

The purchasers are the Koch brothers, and the price, a cool $889 million.

The news that the network organized by David and Charles Koch plans to spend roughly $900 million in the 2016 cycle has freaked out Democrats, outraged so-called campaign-finance reformers and inspired hand-wringing about the future of the planet Earth.

The despair is misplaced. One sign it is still a free country is that a band of like-minded people, devoted to principles they consider essential to the country’s thriving, can get together and try to effect them in public policy.

My only quibble with the Kochs’ announcement is that they didn’t nail a nice, round $1 billion as the most eloquent possible rejoinder to erstwhile Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s campaign of vilification last year.

For all that campaign reformers hate the Kochs, the brothers’ network is, in part, their creation. “This is the natural consequence,” campaign-finance reformer Lawrence Lessig griped about the $889 million, “of a regime with essentially no contribution limits.”

Actually, it is the inevitable consequence of contribution limits. The campaign-finance reformers kneecapped the political parties with malice aforethought and then are stunned that, in a free country, political activity has found other outlets.

If Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz are limited to raising $32,400 per donor annually, they will inevitably lose ground to outside groups.

Rather than freeing up the parties, advocates of greater regulation want to make it as difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for everyone else to raise and spend money on politics. The only obstacle to this ambition is — damn you, George Mason — the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment.

Years ago, then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, a stalwart of more campaign regulation, said that we have “two important values in direct conflict: freedom of speech and our desire for healthy campaigns in a healthy democracy. You can’t have both.”

On his terms, no, you can’t. Which is precisely why Democrats like current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hope to amend the First Amendment to allow the government the latitude to further limit political speech.

Until such time (and may it never arrive), the Kochs and their allies get to run free.

In the abstract, there is a case for more disclosure of donations to the likes of the Koch network. In a political climate in which intimidation to try to shut people down is increasingly the norm, though, the reality is that disclosure would just open to donors up to threats and harassment.

The left always wants to paint the Koch brothers as self-interested, to better fit the stereotype of the robber baron distorting government for his own ends.

But they are the rare breed of businessmen who don’t seek special favors from government, who in fact oppose them on principle. They are capitalists who hate crony capitalism. In the libertarian paradise that they seek, the Kochs would be freer of government regulation — but so would everyone else.

The $889 million figure is not quite what it seems. It encompasses all the Koch spending, including support for academic programs and think tanks. Nor is “buying” an election all it is cracked up to be. The Kochs spent some $400 million on the 2012 election, and came up empty.

The brothers are archvillains, regardless. The left is invested in trying to find a way to squeeze them out of the political process, because it instinctively hates anything being unregulated, including political activity.

Also, its attitude is “influence for me, but not for thee.” The left, by and large, owns the media, academia, the big foundations and Hollywood. Compared with all of that priceless political and cultural influence, the spending of the Koch network is a pittance.

The Koch brothers will nonetheless remain targets, so long as they continue to so prominently represent and advocate for a free society.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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