Prior to McCain-Feingold, the enormous sums of soft-money that poured into campaigns were controlled by each party's respective high-command. These consisted of experienced politicians and highly-paid political consultants. Each party's mission in the campaign was to obtain votes, not to generate a national conversation. In fact, controversy and debate were actively avoided, as they might reveal a candidate's actual beliefs (or lack thereof), which in turn could alienate at least one segment a significant voting block. The campaigns spent vast sums on ads carefully engineered to avoid tough issues. Indeed, these ads were heavily influenced by prior focus group analysis to assure that they offended as few voters as possible.
A genuine dialogue regarding important issues characterized by the clash of differing opinion -- certainly an ideal of a democratic society -- was avoided to the greatest extent possible.
Once the parties were prohibited from raising soft-money, big donors sent their money to 527s (so named for the area of the tax code under which they exist) which by law cannot have operational ties to political parties. These 527s were organized and led by true-believers committed to voicing their often radical messages to America. Money previously spent eradicating controversy was now busy bankrolling it.
For instance, MoveOn.org during the 2004 election directly attacked Pres. Bush with ads that assailed not only his record on Iraq, but also his service in the National Guard and his failure to prevent 9/11. The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth aggressively challenged John Kerry's military service in a way that Republican campaign consultants never would have recommended.
The unintended consequence of McCain-Feingold was that the 2004 campaign saw a refreshing, even bracing variety of important issues thrust into the spotlight rather than deliberately obfuscated or concealed.
Ironically McCain-Feingold turned up the volume of debate so much that it was frequently misinterpreted by the mainstream press as symptomatic of America being "more divided then ever." In fact, what had happened was that the new law provided a voice for opinions that were always there, but had never been in a spotlight. America had grown so used to the stale, scripted, image-intensive but debate-and-controversy-free campaigns of the 1980s and 90s, that the newfound open clash of opinion that resulted from McCain-Feingold was novel and took the mainstream media by surprise.
To date, conservatives appear to have benefited the most from these unintended consequences of McCain-Feingold. Over the past five years, the most prominent 527s on both sides developed their own peculiar identities. 527s on the left are mostly organized by young, militant liberals who generally appear more shrill, extreme and self-righteous than their counterparts on the right. The biggest 527 failure to date, America Coming Together (ACT), was a centerpiece of the left's 2004 campaign strategy. ACT employed more than four thousand campaign staff and ten times as many paid canvassers in key swing states to help elect left-leaning candidates, and, most importantly, to defeat George W. Bush. Now ACT is almost entirely defunct and apparently operates only to pay out six-figure FEC fines related to its '04 campaign activities.
The "Betray Us" ad, whose tone and content was more suited for a Yearly Kos convention than a national newspaper, illustrated the type of speech generated by left leaning 527s. While the future course of America in Iraq is certainly worthy of serious national discussion and debate, the tone of this ad, with its personal attack on General Petraeus, has become a clear liability for the Democrats in Congress opposed to the current war effort.
In contrast, 527 organizations on the right generally represent the opinions of older, conservative individuals from middle America. For instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was organized by Vietnam combat veterans who served with Kerry. Not surprisingly, 527s on the right speak with a voice that, while issue oriented, is generally less shrill and confrontational.
Conservative 527s not only connect better with Americans, their words fill a far greater speech vacuum...