In my native state of Michigan, the race for state Supreme Court justice has produced one of the cleverest campaign ads I have ever seen. It serves as not just a campaign ad for candidate Bridget McCormack, but as a public service announcement informing viewers that if they simply vote the straight party ticket in Michigan (or other states with nonpartisan judicial elections) they will not cast a vote for any judges at all.
The ad—entitled “Walk and Talk the Vote”—also serves as a reunion of the cast of The West Wing, a popular TV series set in the White House that ran from 1999 to 2006. McCormack’s sister, Mary, starred on the show and helped bring the production together:
I never watched much of The West Wing when it aired, and the few episodes I did see struck me as too clever by half. Like almost every lawyer television show ever made, any resemblance to reality was purely coincidental. Aaron Sorkin, the lead writer of West Wing, has moved on to new political fare like The Newsroom, where he continues to not let the facts get in the way of his preachy characters. Regardless, the new McCormack ad is informative and very funny at parts (Martin Sheen’s reference to Apocalypse Now is hilarious), meaning it’s probably going to be effective. Hooray for Hollywood.
But what about the money?
Campaign finance remains a heated topic in this election cycle, with just about every “progressive” decrying the supposed destructive influence that wealthy individuals and organizations wield in politics just through political speech. According to the New York Daily News, McCormack’s campaign paid only $5,000 to produce the ad, and the rest was “donated.” Presumably each actor worked for far less than they normally charge, reducing their contributions significantly. Martin Sheen alone was paid $300,000 per episode when The West Wing aired: by that scale, a 4-minute mini-episode equates to about 10% of a 42-minute episode of the old show, amounting to $30,000 worth of work by Sheen. If we considered this an in-kind contribution by Sheen, that’s nearly ten times the $3,400 contribution limit Michigan puts on individual donations to state Supreme Court candidates.
Of course that’s nonsense: Sheen can charge whatever he wants for his efforts, and can speak out as much as he wants for whomever he wants to see in whatever office. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. But it’s telling that this does not raise the ire of campaign finance “reformers”: apparently it’s only a problem when wealthy individuals or well-funded groups who have made their fortunes without acquiring fame speak out. When a group spends millions of dollars on political advertisements, that money is considered dirty and corrupting, but when celebrities speak out and exercise just as much influence without expending nearly as much money (if any at all), it’s apparently not a problem. And, as we’re showing in the Free Speech case, it’s hardly just wealthy individuals and groups getting bogged down in red tape: at least they can afford accountants and attorneys to help them wade through.
A similar conundrum has long plagued campaign finance “reform” when it comes to incumbency. Established politicians have fame of their own, and although they are subject to the same campaign finance laws as their challengers, they have influence and access to media that their challengers do not. It’s an advantage that’s heightened by contribution limits and election law’s red tape. But like the press and every form of influence that cannot be easily assigned a dollar value, “reformers” dare not touch it.
“Walk and Talk the Vote” is an outstanding advertisement, but it serves as the starkest example of how the political speech of some is freer than that of others.