Oprah’s Undue Influence

Oprah has spoken.  As the New York Times reports:

Last week, for the first time, Ms. Winfrey endorsed a political candidate, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat from Illinois. In an interview on "Larry King Live" on CNN, she said she was backing the senator "because I know him personally."

This is big news for Obama’s campaign.  After all, Oprah is considered by some to be "the most influential woman in the world," and the Times’ report suggests that she knows it:

Ms. Winfrey said that she had not made a financial contribution to Mr. Obama’s campaign, but acknowledged that her public endorsement was probably far more valuable. Campaign finance laws would prohibit her from donating more than $2,300 in the primary and $2,300 in the general election.

So what gives?  Where are the "reformers" to rescue us from Oprah’s undue influence on the political process?

We strongly suspect that Fred Wertheimer isn’t eager to muzzle Oprah.  But if not, he and the rest of the "reform" community have some explaining to do.

They might begin by highlighting the differences between celebrity endorsements and monetary contributions.  Endorsements are difficult to monetize.  You can’t "pocket" an endorsement.  Endorsements are actual spoken or written words, while contributions (apart from the communicative value of the act of contributing) merely fund speech.  Admittedly, these differences are real, but it’s difficult to see how, at least according to the logic of "reform," any of these differences should matter.

The Supreme Court has held that political speech regulations, to be constitutional, must be targeted at corruption or the appearance of corruption.  This limitation has led reformers intent on eliminating private money from politics to adopt an expansive definition of "corruption."  They have defined the term downward, away from quid pro quo and towards "influence" and "access."  But this has painted them into a logical corner, because under this redefinition influential endorsements begin to look more and more like a source of "corruption."  As CCP Chairman Brad Smith explained, this redefinition–apart from being short-sighted on the part of reformers–is fundamentally misguided:

There are a great many sources of political influence.  These include direct personal attributes, such as speaking and writing ability, good looks, personality, time and energy, and organizational skills, as well as acquired attributes, such as wealth, celebrity, and access to or control of the popular press. . . .

Efforts to limit the influence of money simply favor nonmonetary elites.  This targeting of a single source of political power–money–does not necessarily make the system more responsive to the interests of the "common person," however defined.  It merely increases the relative power of other elites.

Smith, Unfree Speech, 79-83 (2001).

Perversely, these other types of influence are even more unevenly distributed than wealth.  There may be a relatively small percentage of the population that can give $2,300 to a political candidate, but there’s only one "most influential woman in the world."

We await the "reformers" next action. After all, a common reform complaint about monetary contributions was that, at the end of the day, it was the large contributor whose phone calls were being returned.  Following this valuable endorsement, is there any chance that Barack Obama won’t be returning Oprah’s phone calls?  What makes her influence more deserving of protection than, say, an unknown professional with money to spend?

In the meantime we’ll continue to advocate, as we always have, that Oprah and every other American be allowed to assist political campaigns in the best way they know how, whether that be by giving one’s time, or one’s endorsement, or even one’s money.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.