WASHINGTON -- In a series of speeches and interviews over the past day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued against adding a further layer of disclosure to the campaign finance system, suggesting that the Obama administration would use it to browbeat political opponents.
The Kentucky Republican has long been one of Congress' foremost advocates of a far-reaching interpretation of First Amendment rights. And his remarks, first to Fox News, then to the Faith and Freedom Conference and finally to the American Enterprise Institute, followed in that vein.
But in arguing against the Disclose Act -- which would require nonprofit groups that spend money on campaign-related advertisements to disclose their funders -- McConnell trotted out another wrinkle. Donors to politically active nonprofit groups, he said, do not deserve to be subjected to public scrutiny or backlash.
"My own view has always been that if you can’t convince people of the wisdom of your policies, then you should come up with some better arguments," McConnell said in his American Enterprise Institute speech, according to advanced remarks. "But for all its vaunted tolerance, the political left has consistently demonstrated a militant intolerance for dissent. Sadly, a growing number of people on the left, and now within government itself, appear to have concluded that they can’t win on the merits. So they’ve resorted to bullying and intimidation instead."
Atop McConnell's list of those threatening the principle of freedom of association and free speech stood the White House, whose tactics the senator described as Nixonian. The president had "shown an alarming willingness ... to use the powers of government to silence" those groups with which he has an ideological disagreement, McConnell insisted. And his administration was being aided by allied groups, he argued.
"This dangerous alliance threatens the character of America," McConnell said. "And that’s why it is critically important for all conservatives -- and indeed all Americans -- to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so."
The examples that McConnell offered as evidence of a concerted political-retribution campaign have been raised by conservatives in the past -- such as the IRS' investigation of the nonprofit status of Tea Party organizations.
But some of McConnell's examples had holes. He noted that the White House had circulated a draft executive order that would require more disclosure from government contractors making political donations. That order never went anywhere. The minority leader also highlighted the rough treatment that Newark Mayor Cory Booker received for disagreeing with the Obama campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure in the world of private equity. But he based it on an anonymous quote to the New York Post from a "ranking" administration official.
But while McConnell's speeches argued strongly against the notion of more disclosure itself, transparency used to be the tradeoff that conservatives would make in exchange for eliminating limits on the donations that people could give. McConnell has a long history of making this very argument.
But with the Supreme Court's having wiped away many of the caps on political giving, there is really no more need for him to make that trade.
"I believe that the First Amendment defends Mitch McConnell's hypocritical speech today, but it doesn't mean you can't have common sense limits on big money in politics," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a watchdog group. "The First Amendment belongs to all us, not just the politicians and their wealthy donors. The truth is, McConnell's historic position is that he will defend a system that will maintain his power, period."
Asked about the apparent refining of his position, a representative in McConnell's office shot back that "full disclosure of contributions to campaigns and parties" was "already law." (It is. The Disclose Act would expand it to politically active nonprofit groups as well.)
"What we have here is a new era of intimidation and harassment of people that want to associate themselves, and a selective plan for 'disclosure,'" emailed Don Stewart, the senator's top spokesman.
McConnell highlighted that "selectiveness" during his Fox News interview when he accused authors of the Disclose Act of carving out a loophole for unions. (Unions already must disclose expenditure and membership information to the Department of Labor.) Stewart acknowledged that the carve-out also affected the National Rifle Association, among other organizations with large memberships in all 50 states.
As McConnell spoke before American Enterprise Institute, news broke illustrating the very development that the Disclose Act's boosters are hoping to address. Foster Friess, the businessman backer of Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, announced that he would be lending his support to Mitt Romney's super PAC. But rather than donate directly, he would do it through a 501(c)(4) organization so that it could be done in relative secrecy.
"Well I'm going to do that more undercover, I'm going to do it through a lot of (c)(4)s so it's not so high profile," Friess told Buzz Feed at the Faith and Freedom Conference.
Below, scroll through a list of top super PAC donors looking to make a mark on the 2012 elections in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision: