In Defense Of 527s

[ Posted Tuesday, May 20th, 2008 – 15:02 UTC ]

With a title like that, you might be expecting Marc Antony-like irony ("Brutus is an honorable man"), but I'm actually serious. I like 527s, and wholeheartedly support the concept. Sure, it could use a little more openness, but the basic idea is sound. Three examples from the campaign trail today show why.

But before we get to that, let's start with some definitions. A 527, for those of you who don't already know, is an organization (it's more properly called a "527 group") that raises money and then spends it to further their own political agenda. It is called a 527 because of the section of the IRS rules it exists under. If you want to make a political point -- any political point -- you can form a 527, raise money from donors, and then spend that money on a print, radio, or television advertisement campaign. You find some deep-pocket donor, get him or her to pony up a few million bucks (or raise it from small donors online), and then you air ads on television saying whatever you want. Well, that's not 100% true, as there are limits to what you can say. You can't, for instance, come out and say "vote for Obama," because that puts you in a whole different section of the IRS tax code. But other than advocating for one particular candidate, you can pretty much say whatever you want.

People from both ends of the political spectrum love to hate 527s. There's a reason for this -- they can say pretty much anything they want to. It sounds reasonable, but it may not when you realize that the most famous 527 to date (their name has now even been officially "verbized") is the "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth." They played a major part in John Kerry's loss in the 2004 campaign. Which is why they've got a bad reputation on the left. But the right is just as vocal against 527s, since it also covers folks like MoveOn.

I personally am of the opinion that more free speech is better than less. Which is why I like the concept of 527s, and why I support their right to speak. It's also interested to see who else is against 527s -- both political parties. Because before 527s were around, these "advocacy ads" came from the party machine, and were coordinated with the candidates. Meaning centralized control over the message. But I don't consider that a good thing at all -- I like the concept of free citizens being able to have their own voices heard in the political debate. Sure, it's messier (with a lot of mud being flung), but true freedom is always a little messy.

Of course, the concept of 527 groups isn't perfect, and could use some reform. Since they are not political parties, they don't have to make their donor lists public, meaning that they can be funded by wealthy individuals who can keep "their fingerprints" away from the public eye. George Soros (on the left) or Richard Mellon Scaife (on the right) can create so-called "astroturf" groups that give the appearance of being "grassroots" organizations but in reality are anything but. But making 527 donor lists transparent would be an easy fix to this problem (and one I would support).

Another complaint is that since it takes so much money to mount an effective ad campaign, that it's ludicrous to talk about this as some sort of "free speech" issue, when the "speech" clearly isn't "free," but in reality costs a lot of money. Well, that's true. But when has such "free speech" ever been "free" in America? There's no law that prevents anyone from going down to Central Park or The Mall in Washington, D.C., setting up a soapbox and giving political opinions to the world at large. That's "free" speech. For any other medium, ads cost money. This is a fact of life, and always has been, so I don't see the problem.

And today, if you have some harebrained crackpot political ideas and want to disseminate them to the public, you can make the ultimate egotistical statement to the world and register your name as an internet domain, set up a blog, and start spewing forth your laughably amateur point of view online, in the hopes of convincing any impressionable readers who happen by.

[Hey, wait a minute...]

Ahem. But seriously, the concept of 527s should be seen as a positive thing. Sure, there are groups that you will not agree with. There are groups which will anger you. But there will also be groups which do say things you want to hear. What I'm trying to say is there can be good and evil 527s, but the concept itself is a good thing on the whole. And as we've already seen from the swiftboating of John Kerry, it's hard to argue that they can be effective.

Like any political ad, though, a 527 ad has the possibility of backfiring in one way or another. The MoveOn "BetrayUs" ad is a good example. The wording of the ad became the story, and the point they wanted to make was kind of lost in the noise as a result. Ads can backfire even worse than that, if the public viewing them punishes who you are trying to help, by solidifying support behind them as a direct result of your ad.

Here are three recent ads which caught my eye for one reason or another. Whether you agree with them or not, it is interesting to keep tabs on this type of political ground war on the airwaves and newspaper pages. To be honest, the IRS code is thick, and I do not absolutely know that all three of these organizations is officially a 527 (they could be other designations, there are more than a few), but the general concept is the same for all of them.


WomenCount Political Action Committee

This PAC is supporting Hillary Clinton with full-page ads in newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today. They may have been recently and hastily put together, since their political goal is such a specific one, and since they don't seem to have a webpage anywhere I could find. I did find a posting of the text of their ad on a blog, but have no way to verify its authenticity. From this ad, titled "Not So Fast," here is what they're calling for:

We cannot stand by as a cacophony of voices demand that she [Hillary Clinton] step aside to smooth the road for another.

. . .

We know that when women vote, Democrats win. Now it is the responsibility of our party to hear our voices and count all our votes.

We want Hillary to stay in this race until every vote is cast, every vote is counted, and we are convinced our voices are heard.

While I don't really think the ad will have much effect, and I think that the race is in effect over, I still fully support their right to spend their money in an attempt to convince others (superdelegates, I'm assuming) of their point.


Blue America PAC

Salon's Glenn Greenwald has the details on this story. A group calling itself Blue America PAC has a very targeted ad campaign they are running against a "Blue Dog" Democrat. Blue Dogs used to be called DINOs (for "Democrat In Name Only"), and are the conservative-to-moderate wing of the Democratic Party (if you think that's an oxymoron, you're behind the times). Many of the seats won in the 2006 election blowout by Democrats are much more conservative than some Democrats are used to. And some independent groups are trying to pull the party back to the left.

Blue America PAC is targeting Democrat Chris Carney, a member of the House from Pennsylvania. They're targeting him for supporting amnesty for the telecommunications companies for wiretapping Americans without the benefit of a warrant. Sounds good to me. Greenwald has the video ad, or you can check out their full-page newspaper ad to see what they're talking about.

The newspaper ad begins "You can't put a price on freedom, unless you're Rep. Chris Carney, that is." It goes on to say [emphasis is in original text]:

We sent Chris Carney to Congress to fight for our security and our freedoms. But instead of standing up for regular Pennsylvanians, Carney is serving the demands of his big corporate donors. He sold out the Constitution for tens of thousands in campaign contributions from the big phone companies who broke the law by letting the government spy on you, read your emails and record your phone calls -- all without warrants.

That's illegal, unconstitutional, and unethical. And it's un-American.

This is called "holding elected officials responsible for their votes," and is a good thing, whether you agree with the issue they're raising or not (for the record, I do). Elected politicians should have their feet held to the fire by the public for the way they vote. There should be consequences for them at election time when they sell their votes like this.

I saved the best one for last, though. is going on a full-court press against John McCain and Texas' Senator John Cornyn for their opposition to Senator Webb's new GI Bill. Ads are running in Washington, D.C., and in Texas. Jon Soltz at Huffington Post has the full story, complete with video.

This is brilliant, because "supporting the troops" is supposed to be either a Republican strength, or at the very least a non-partisan issue. And yet McCain and Cornyn find themselves on the wrong side of it. Which is absolutely fair game to be pointed out to the public, in an effort to shame them into voting the right way during an election. And, if they don't, warning them that this will be an issue that will be used against them in the campaign.


This shows my larger point. Ads like these are an effective way for citizens to pressure lawmakers and candidates into coming down on one side of an issue or the other. Big Business and even Big Labor have enough millions to actually "lobby" Congress, but these smaller and not-as-well-funded groups show that you can have the same effect (for much less money) through purchasing a few advertisements here and there.

Which I equate to "more political voices being heard." Which -- as I said -- I consider a good thing.


-- Chris Weigant


9 Comments on “In Defense Of 527s”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I agree that the more voices heard during an election campaign the better. I also agree that the identity of those behind these groups should be public - transparency is a good thing.

    However, I would like to see major election reforms in the area of political ads. I think that there is too much profit being made by big corporations when the funds raised by these groups could be better used to help advance their issues in a more concrete way.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    It's been my experience that 527s are like "Talking Points"....

    When someone agrees with them, they are manna from heaven...

    When someone disagrees with them, they are evil atrocities...

    Personally, I would like to see a "BS" rating assigned to each 527 as. A non-partisan group like would give the ad a BS rating from 1 to 10...

    10 being the gospel truth and 1 being "it's ripe, senor!!!"....



  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    That was funny! I kinda like the idea, but choosing a neutral party would raise a whole 'nother fracas, I bet...


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    The Washington Post has been running their own fact-checking operation. They award "Pinocchios" for how big a lie the ads are. Four Pinocchios is their worst award though, I think.

    Just FYI...


  5. [5] 
    Buzzardbilly wrote:

    There's a large coal operator here who (naturally) has a lot more money than most people ever dream of having. He started a 527 literally "for the children" and replace a West Virginia State Supreme Court judge with a judge he was backing. Where there's a very large disparity between the have's and the have not's 527's can be a club slung by the haves to get the have not's to vote the way they want them to.

    In larger markets, I can see where more voices would have access to raising the funds for media time.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Buzzardbilly -

    First of all, I'd like to welcome you to the site!

    For everyone else, I'd like to highlight a few things. In my "picks" article on West Virginia, I included the following line, as I was sorely tempted to make a cheap joke with HILLary Clinton and BILL Cliton's name resulting in some form of the word "hillbilly," but refrained from doing so. I thought I was being extra-sensitive, since I do strive to avoiding offending anyone unintentionally, and cheap shots like this with slurs that many consider offensive are the worst kind of trashy comedy. In any case, what I wrote was:

    "West Virginians, please note I refrained from making any sort of 'hillbilly' jokes here, although with Senator Clinton's first name (and her husband's as well) the temptation to do so was almost overwhelming. But I consider the term to be derogatory, hence my restraint."

    But it took Buzzardbilly, who has a wonderful web site from West Virginia to put me on the straight and narrow. It's the old problem of "don't think of an elephant" -- when someone tells you that, you can't but help picture a pachyderm. It was pointed out to me that my weak attempt at humor was exactly the same -- "insert your own hillbilly joke here" was the way Buzzardbilly so aptly put it.

    In any case, we have smoothed over our differences, and Buzzardbilly has been kind enough to write an article highlighting me, and also to put me on her blogroll. So we're friends now, in other words.

    Since I grew up in a state near West Virginia, and often traveled to the eastern part of the state, I hope all Mountain Staters will feel welcome here. I assure them all, I have childhood memories of Seneca Rocks and Seneca Caverns, as well as visiting the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (before the main antenna fell down). I have been to the top of Spruce Knob (West Virginia's highest point) at least twice, once in the depths of winter. I have inner-tubed the Potomac past Harpers Ferry. When I wrote a book about radio disk jockeys, I interviewed "Cowboy Will" Shumate from 105.9FM in Beckley (WTNJ).

    What I'm trying to say here is that I'm no stranger to West Virginia, and you shouldn't feel like a stranger here. Although I live now in California, I can't stand people who consider everything between the coasts as "flyover country." Americans are Americans, no matter where they happen to live. That's my motto!

    But to answer your specific comment, Buzzardbilly, although the effect of 527s in your area may have been the powerful against the interests of the powerless, I truly believe with time, the powerless will harness this to equally compete. Perhaps not so much on local issues, it's true, but certainly on national priorities.

    In any case, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Well, I doubt we will see a CLINTON Independent run...

    Money shocker! Hillary Clinton's campaign debt soars to $31 million

    Simply another reason why Clinton should quit now, before she racks up even more debt..

    On the other hand, it might be ANOTHER way that Clinton will sabotage Obama's run. By racking up a huge debt and then forcing Obama to pay for it.

    If I were Obama, I would cover Clinton's debt up to the point it became obvious to anyone that she couldn't win. That point, in my not so humble opinion, would be the Indiana/North Carolina primaries... I would tell Clinton that, after the Indy/NC contests, she has to cover everything she did..


  8. [8] 
    Buzzardbilly wrote:

    Chris, I'm floored again by your kindness with that introduction. You bring up an excellent point about the powerless in time being able to compete. There are so many ways to publicize one's political interests that cost nothing (or next to nothing) these days.

    There's a Walker Percy quote I love: "There's always a lag between the end of an age and the realization that the age has ended."

    Perhaps there's a lag in rural groups realizing that it doesn't necessarily take money to win a fight for issue votes. Money or not, it takes publicity and ingenuity in how one gets it when one cannot afford a billboard or mass mailing.

    I stand corrected about the future of 527s. It may be much brighter than I thought.

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    On another note... Having NOTHING to do with 527s...

    "It's funny because it's true..."
    -Homer Simpson


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