Matching Volume

Imagine an on-stage debate.

On one side, we have Bob Boomer. Bob’s bought himself a state-of-the-art microphone and sound system. His every breath echoes to the back of the room – heck, probably to the back of New Mexico.

On the other, we have Eric Lowrent. He’s got nothing but the lungs and vocal cords God gave him. Outshouting Bob is going to be like outrunning a locomotive: not going to happen unless your last name’s Kent.

So, to keep things fair, the moderator gets Eric a mike, too. And Bob cries foul. “I paid good money to be the loudest man in this debate! You’ve got no business siding with him!”

This week, the Supreme Court sided with Bob.

Naturally, the real-world decision had more to do with dollars than decibels. Specifically, the Court struck down a law that let Arizona give additional money to publicly-financed political candidates who were being badly outspent by a privately-financed opponent and his or her allies.

Why? According to the majority, because it violated the privately-financed candidate’s First Amendement rights.

“Burdening the speech of some … to increase the speech of others is ‘a concept wholly foreign to the First Amendment,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. The “burden” in this case, according to the argument, is the private candidate’s reluctance to put more dollars into a campaign that is only going to be countered by automatic funding to an opponent.

Because, you know, his speech has been so little heard and so ineffective already.

I’m not saying Arizona’a law is perfect. It was, after all, created by politicians. But the decision on it seems to be taking place in a fun-house mirror. Just as in our hypothetical debate, the intent is not to shout  priately-backed candidates off the stage – probably impossible in any event – but to make sure that publicly-financed candidates get heard at all.

In an era where free speech can be very expensive, this isn’t squelching debate. It’s encouraging it.

Or it was. Now it’s mainly a set of restrictions on candidates without much in the way of compensating advantages.

Given that, why would any rational human being accept public financing in the first place?

Maybe I’m missing something. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe there’s a good reason for a candidate to tie both hands behind her back rather than dive into the world of high-roller funding … or to simply turn her back on the whole affair and leave politics to the people who can afford it.

I’m willing to listen. Always.

But get your own microphone.

This one’s mine.

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