Conservative Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor George Will cherry-picked outlier examples of campaign finance violations while ignoring legitimate concerns about the potential for big-money donors to corrupt elections and balloted measures .
In his October 30 column, Will attacks campaign finance reform and celebrates the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for large donors to corrupt elections with outsized contributions. Will highlights a pair of lower-court cases where judges struck down regulations on political speech that affected seemingly small-time civic participation to downplay the danger of political corruption, conveniently overlooking how these decisions might make it easier for large corporations to obfuscate their own political participation:
Brick by brick, judges are dismantling the wall of separation that legislators have built between political activity and the First Amendment's protections of free speech and association. The latest examples, from Mississippi and Arizona, reflect the judiciary's proper engagement in defending citizens from the regulation of political speech, a.k.a. "campaign finance reform."
In 2011, a few like-minded friends and neighbors in Oxford, Miss., who had been meeting for a few years to discuss politics, decided to work together to support passage of an initiative amending Mississippi's Constitution. The amendment, restricting the power of the state and local governments to take private property by eminent domain, was provoked by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo ruling that governments could, without violating the Fifth Amendment ("nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation"), take property for the "public use" of transferring it to persons who would pay more taxes to the government.
The Mississippi friends and neighbors wanted to pool their funds to purchase posters, fliers and local newspaper advertising. They discovered that if, as a group, they spent more than $200 to do these simple things, they would be required by the state's campaign finance law to register as a "political committee." And if, as individuals, any of them spent more than $200 supporting the initiative, they must report this political activity to the state.
Mississippi defines a political committee as any group of persons spending more than $200 to influence voters for or against candidates "or balloted measures." Supposedly, regulation of political activity is to prevent corruption of a candidate or the appearance thereof. How does one corrupt a "balloted measure"?
The answer to this question should be obvious, and even Will begrudgingly admits "there is some slight informational value in knowing where money supporting a voter initiative comes from." Although Will doesn't mention it, the judge in the Mississippi case clearly left the door open for future regulations of political speech, giving a nod to the possibility of improper influence with respect to ballot initiatives:
Significantly, the Court does not hold that Mississippi may not regulate individuals and groups attempting to influence constitutional ballot measures. Instead, the Court holds only that under the current regulatory scheme, which is convoluted and exacting, the requirements are too burdensome for the State's $200 threshold.
Nevertheless, Will goes on to call the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United -- one that allowed a tsunami of corporate money to enter the election process -- an "excellent" one. But even Citizens United noted the corrupting danger of unchecked money in the political system, and transparency was explicitly recognized as the critical protection against such a problem.
Rush Limbaugh wants to know why George Will can root for Obamacare to fail without consequence while he faced criticism for hoping Obama fails, sentiments that are "the same thing" according to the radio host.
Newly-crowned Fox contributor George Will appeared on Fox News Sunday's online after-show Panel Plus on October 27 to discuss glitches in Healthcare.gov. Will told the panel, "Of course I want Obamacare to fail. Because if it doesn't fail, it will just further entangle American society with a government that is not up to this."
To Rush Limbaugh, Will's remarks reflected the same sentiment Limbaugh himself expressed back in 2009. Because "if you want Obamacare to fail," Limbaugh reasoned, "you want Obama to fail."
Indeed, four days before then-President-elect Barack Obama took office in 2009, Limbaugh infamously declared that he "hope[s] Obama fails," a refrain he repeated that day and throughout Obama's presidency.
Part of the impetus behind this sentiment, Limbaugh explained at the time, is that he did not want the government involved in health care:
LIMBAUGH: Look, what he's talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work.
Now, Limbaugh is attempting to drag George Will under the bus with him. On the October 28 edition of his radio program, Limbaugh aired Will's remarks about his desire for Obamacare to fail, and claimed this was the "same thing" he had said in 2009 for "the exact same reasons":
Newly christened Fox News contributor George Will sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep on the October 9 Morning Edition to educate us all on the subtle governmental intricacies behind the week-old government shutdown and the week-or-so-away debt limit fracture. Leaning on the Founding Fathers, Will gave his stamp of approval to the Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare and argued against the inviolability of the Affordable Care Act as "the law," observing that "the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them."
Will is right: laws are not sacrosanct and can be altered or thrown out at any time. Obamacare is real-time proof of that -- the Supreme Court upheld the law but ruled that states could not be forced to participate in its expansion of Medicaid. But that's a pedestrian observation made provocative by the out-of-line invocation of segregation and slavery. "Separate but equal" and the Fugitive Slave Act were moral travesties; the ACA helps people buy health insurance. The similarities begin and end with their status as laws. Other laws have been scuttled too -- Prohibition, for example -- but Will chose those two particular laws and in doing so invited a comparison that he can't justify because it's unjustifiable.
And then there's Will's assertion that what we're seeing with the government shutdown and the attendant gridlock over Obamacare is the "Madisonian scheme," the idea that government is "hard to move, it's supposed to be. People look at Washington and say 'oh, this is so difficult.' It's supposed to be difficult."
Again, Will is right that governing and passing legislation is hard work. It was hard work for the Democrats to win majorities in both houses of Congress, and it was hard work for Barack Obama to win the presidency in 2008. Even with those majorities, it was really quite difficult for the president and the Democrats to craft a health care bill and get it through Congress, and they paid a difficult price for it at the ballot box in 2010. Defending the law in front of the Supreme Court was a monumentally difficult task, and even though it emerged, it did not do so unscathed. And then Obama and the Democrats had to go before the electorate again, in 2012, to defend the law, and not only did they succeed, they actually improved their standing in both the House and the Senate.
Here's a quick synopsis of George Will's last five columns for the Washington Post: bemoaning the politicization of the Federal Reserve Board; tracing the history of isolationism; counseling Republicans to let Obamacare stumble on its own; inveighing against college football's corruption and lawlessness; and examining the legacy of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In those five columns, Will cited a proposed constitutional amendment from 1938, used the phrases "semantic infiltration" and "perverse fecundity," and quoted Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken. He has degrees from Oxford and got his Ph.D from Princeton.
All this to say that George Will is a brainy fellow who enjoys a broad array of scholarly pursuits and has a long-running reputation as a public intellectual. And that's why it's kind of baffling that he's joining Fox News.
To be clear, Will's conservative politics and his counterfactual denialism of climate change fit the Murdoch network hand-in-glove. And he's an old, white conservative man joining what is basically the ongoing televised celebration of old, white conservative men. But the barking partisanship of Fox News and its crude appeals to cultural resentment don't mesh with Will's style of commentary and analysis. You look at George Will, in all his carefully cultivated patrician nerdiness, and the Fox News environment just seems wrong for him. He revels in elitism, whereas Fox News sops to Tea Party anger. Being associated with that does nothing for the George Will "brand," if that's the right word for it. In fact, it probably hurts it.
George Will argues in his Washington Post column today that what he terms the Justice Department's "drive to federalize voter registration" is an unnecessarily complex answer to "the non-problem of people choosing not to vote," and that high voter turnout isn't all it's cracked up to be, citing the German elections of the early 1930s that resulted in Nazi dictatorship.
Describing "obvious reasons for non-voting," he writes:
[T]he stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.
There's a lot to unpack here, but I'll try to keep it brief. Germany in the early 1930s was reeling from the global depression, increasingly bitter over the outcome of World War I and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and overrun by extremist parties with their own paramilitary wings brawling in the streets and shooting at each other outside political rallies. Anti-Semitism was widespread, everyone hated the Weimar government, and nostalgia for the heady days of the Kaiser led most people to actually yearn for a dictatorship of some form. And in this toxic political environment, the Nazis managed to prevail over the other extremist groups -- largely due to popular support, but also through conspiracy and outright intimidation.
None of that, however, is an argument against the high voter turnout as a sign of "civic health." It's an argument against war, depression, anti-Semitism, Nazis, Communists, and political violence. Will could just as easily have argued that representative government, or elections themselves, aren't a sign of "civic health," given how they were misused and perverted by Hitler and his associates.
From the December 18 edition of ABC's This Week with Christianne Amanpour:
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In a November 17 Washington Post column, George Will suggested "economic growth decreased" following a 1990 budget deal that included a tax increase. In fact, the United States experienced sustained economic growth soon after the debt deal, which continued for a decade.
Politico reported Friday that more than a week prior, the wife of conservative Washington Post columnist George Will took a messaging position with the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Politico noted that Will had since discussed the GOP primary and disparaged Perry's primary opponents in two Post columns and on ABC's This Week, all without disclosing his wife's position. The article also indicated that while Will had told his Post editors that his wife's role was unpaid, it is in fact a paid position.
This morning, Will finally disclosed his wife's position during ABC's This Week. When given the opportunity by host Christiane Amanpour to do some "personal housekeeping," Will did not apologize for his failure to reveal this information, nor did he pledge to continue to make such disclosures in the future. In fact, Will's only "housekeeping" was mentioning that "some of the more excitable and perhaps less mature members of the Romney campaign have tried to make this personal."
From the November 13 edition of ABC's This Week:
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Politico reported that the wife of Washington Post columnist George Will has taken a job with the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, a fact Will reportedly plans to disclose on Sunday on ABC News and in future columns.
As noted* by Politico's Dylan Byers, the ties between the Perry camp and Will's wife, Mari Maseng, developed in recent weeks as Will was discussing Perry's opponents in Washington Post columns and during appearances on ABC News.
Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt, however, dismissed concerns about Will's past columns:
"There was no relationship between his wife and any campaign the last time he wrote a column on the campaign, or any aspect of the campaign," Hiatt said. "This developed after the last column that was two weeks ago. He has never written a column while there was a relationship between his wife and the campaign."
Will has however had multiple columns within the last two weeks. His most recent column for the Post was published online November 9 and in print November 10. A column about the GOP debates was published online November 4 (in print November 6), and a column that disparaged Romney as "the pretzel candidate" was published online October 28 (in print October 30).
And there is some confusion over Maseng's status: Both Hiatt and Washington Post Writer Group editor Alan Scherer say that when Will informed them of Maseng's role, he said it was unpaid. However, Miner told us that this was a paid position. Will did not return more than half-a-dozen calls.
Maseng's job may also pose a problem for Will's relationship with ABC News. On November 6, two days before the debate and after Maseng started her work for the campaign, Will appeared on ABC's "This Week" and faulted Perry's GOP challengers, including Romney.
*Updated to reflect changes in the Politico article.
UPDATE: Politico is now reporting that Will's wife also sought work with the Romney campaign:
In addition to her current work for the Perry campaign and her earlier work for the Bachmann campaign, a source knowledgeable of the situation tells us that Maseng sought out a role with the Romney campaign in June.
On June 28, Maseng went to Boston and met with multiple, "high-level officials" in the Romney campaign about joining on as an adviser. No formal offer was ever made, according to the source.
Writing in the Washington Post today, George Will does the punditry equivalent of kicking open the screen door and screaming at the damn kids on his lawn:
In scale, OWS's demonstrations-cum-encampments are to Tea Party events as Pittsburg, Kan., is to Pittsburgh, Pa. So far, probably fewer people have participated in all of them combined than attended just one Tea Party rally, that of Sept. 12, 2009, on the Mall. In comportment, OWS is to the Tea Party as Lady Gaga is to Lord Chesterfield: Blocking the Brooklyn Bridge was not persuasion modeled on Tea Party tactics.
Lord Chesterfield was Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, an 18th-century essayist and quote-monger who devised many well-known aphorisms. Lady Gaga is a popular musician who wears strange clothes, has legions of fans, and is confusing to the older generations. I doubt the Occupy Wall Street protesters would view the comparison as quite the insult George Will intends it to be. And Lord Chesterfield, his gifts of insight and brevity notwithstanding, never came up so meaningful a saying as: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."
But let's not get distracted -- George Will is here to punch hippies, and he even takes a fond look back at the days when people actually punched actual hippies:
Imitation is the sincerest form of progressivism because nostalgia motivates progressives, not conservatives. Tea Party Envy is leavened by Woodstock Envy -- note the drum circles at the Manhattan site -- which is a facet of Sixties Envy. Hence, conservatives should be rejoicing.
From 1965 through 1968, the left found its voice and style in consciousness-raising demonstrations and disruptions. In November 1968, the nation, its consciousness raised, elected Richard Nixon president and gave 56.9 percent of the popular vote to Nixon or George Wallace. Republicans won four of the next five presidential elections.
Seriously? I know that it's easy to overstate the influence of the counter-culture movement, but come on...
A less cynical person might point out that the period of "consciousness-raising demonstrations and disruptions" happened to coincide with the height of the Civil Rights movement, which Republicans exploited -- along with Vietnam fatigue -- to fracture the old Democratic coalitions and ride to power. (There's a reason George Wallace carried five states in 1968, and it wasn't the anti-drum circle vote.)
Also: conservatives are not motivated by "nostalgia"? There's not one time period, or one president, that gets them all misty-eyed when the memories start trickling down?
Anyway, George Will envisions the coming election as a battle between the hippies and the "real" America. "So: OWS vs. the Tea Party. Republicans generally support the latter. Do Democrats generally support the former? Let's find out. Let's vote." Great idea! Though given that the OWS protesters at the moment have a net positive approval rating, whereas the Tea Party's is very much negative, it's possible that Will and the rest of the hippie-punchers might find themselves encircled by drums.
George Will recently argued that it was unconstitutional for states to set maximum hour limits for certain workers, a view that the Supreme Court took in 1905, but repudiated in 1936. Will's argument also put him at odds with seven of the nine current Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. Even Will himself once opposed the decision striking down maximum hour laws.
Now, Will has turned to attacking business regulation more generally. In today's Washington Post, without pointing to any provision in the Constitution to back him up, Will adopted the argument that "the Constitution protects the individual's right to earn a living free from unreasonable regulation." That might be all well and good in the abstract, but in practice, such a doctrine would put minimum wage laws (it would be unconstitutional to stop an individual from "earn[ing] a living" if she had decided to accept a job that pays $3 per hour), as well as child labor laws, at risk.
Vong, 47, left Vietnam in 1982, and after stops in Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, settled in San Francisco and lived there for 20 years before coming here to open a nail salon with a difference. Her salon offered $30 fish therapy, wherein small fish from China nibble dead skin from people's feet. Arizona's Board of Cosmetology decided the fish were performing pedicures, and because all pedicure instruments must be sterilized and fish cannot be, the therapy must be discontinued. Vong lost her more-than-$50,000 investment in fish tanks and other equipment, and some customers. Three of her employees lost their jobs.
The plucky litigators at the Goldwater Institute are representing Vong in arguing that the Constitution protects the individual's right to earn a living free from unreasonable regulations. In a 1932 case (overturning an Oklahoma law requiring a new ice company to prove a "public need" for it), the U.S. Supreme Court said that the law's tendency was to "foster monopoly in the hands of existing establishments." The court also said:
"The principle is imbedded in our constitutional system that there are certain essentials of liberty with which the state is not entitled to dispense. . . . The theory of experimentation in censorship [is] not permitted to interfere with the fundamental doctrine of the freedom of the press. The opportunity to apply one's labor and skill in an ordinary occupation with proper regard for all reasonable regulations is no less entitled to protection."
Unfortunately, soon after 1932, New Deal progressivism washed over the courts, which became derelict regarding their duty to protect economic liberty.
The move to take us back to the Gilded Age started at the fringe, has moved to Fox News, and now has a prominent place on The Washington Post's op-ed page.
As we pointed out last week, George Will hyped a book by law professor David Bernstein that aims to defend Lochner v. New York, a much-reviled 1905 Supreme Court decision that struck down a New York state law regulating maximum hours for bakery workers. Bernstein has now set his sights on the federal law that outlaws child labor.
Yesterday, Bernstein wrote a blog post responding to a Center for American Progress report that highlights the fact that tea party hardliners believe we should "return to the world where federal child labor laws are unconstitutional."
Bernstein responded: "Shocking! Or maybe not so much." He continued:
As I pointed out recently, by the time Hammer was overruled in the late 1930s
every one of the forty-eight states had laws banning [for younger kids] and regulating [for older teens] child labor. Unlike the national Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, most of these laws restricted children under fourteen, as opposed to sixteen, though a sixteen-year rule was gradually gaining traction.
And that was seventy-plus years ago; assumedly, the laws would have gotten stricter over time. Federal child labor laws, in short, were a solution in search of a problem. But they have served a useful purpose-providing an easy rhetorical device for those who oppose any meaningful constitutional limits on federal power.
In other words, because the states had banned child labor for children under 14 and might have continued on the path of strengthening their child labor laws, federal child labor laws were superfluous. (Is it really true that all states would have eventually enacted stricter bans on child labor? Even if so, tell that to 15-year-olds in 1938.) But they have served the harmful purpose of allowing the federal government to extend its power.
By the way, as the Center for American Progress mentioned in a section of its report quoted by Bernstein, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld child labor laws in 1941.
Exit question: Is George Will on board with dismantling federal child labor laws, or did he not know what he was getting into when he endorsed Lochner?
George Will has joined the Fox News-led crusade to overturn the 20th century.
In his Washington Post column, Will argued that the Supreme Court "correctly decided Lochner v. New York" and that the opinion remains "relevant to current arguments," lauding David Bernstein's Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform.
The Lochner decision, decided in 1905, struck down a New York State law regulating maximum hours for bakery workers. Will explained:
An 1895 New York law limited bakery employees to working 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week. Ostensibly, this was health and safety legislation; actually, it was rent-seeking by large, unionized bakeries and the unions. Corporate bakeries supported the legislation, which burdened their small, family-owned competitors. The bakers union hoped to suppress the small, non-unionized bakeries that depended on flexible work schedules.
One such was owned by Joseph Lochner, who challenged the law, prevailing in the Supreme Court, 5 to 4. The majority said "clean and wholesome bread" does not depend on limiting workers' hours: Workers are "in no sense wards of the state," and there is no evidence that baking is an especially unhealthful profession, so the law was an unconstitutional "interference" with an unenumerated right of individuals, the liberty of contract.
The court essentially nullified its decision in 1936, and states and the federal government have since been free to enact maximum hour laws, minimum wage laws, and the like to great public approval. Without such laws there would be no weekend. But according to Will, the Lochner opinion "flowed from bedrock American doctrine" of "liberty of contract," only to be "reviled" by liberals.
Contrary to Will's mythology, Lochner is in no way a liberal bogeyman.
In his syndicated Washington Post column, chronic climate change misinformer George Will falsely suggested that a supposed "global cooling" scare in the 1970's is comparable to the current scientific consensus on global warming.