Tuesday, October 02, 2012

George Will's Question for the Wrong Candidate

George Will, who has long been an opponent of campaign finance reform, has penned a "questions for the candidates" column, in which he imagines asking the President,
President Obama, you deplore the court's Citizens United decision. What is your constitutional basis for rejecting the decision's principle that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in corporate entities (mostly nonprofit advocacy corporations such as the Sierra Club) to speak collectively? You say you would “seriously consider" amending the First Amendment to empower Congress to regulate political speech. Explain why you choose to make the Bill of Rights less protective.
As Will knows, the President would likely respond with a rather scholarly commentary on the history of corporations, corporate speech rights, and campaign finance jurisprudence, that historically there has been bipartisan support for restrictions on campaign spending by both individuals (something that doesn't appear anywhere near as bothersome to Will) an corporations, point out that the question was narrowly decided by the court in a decision that reversed recent precedent, and that there are valid reasons to be wary of excessive contributions from any interest group. The fact that the First Amendment, at least as interpreted for the greater part of the last century, would have us err on the side of speech rights does not change the fact that there are competing interests at play.

But although Mitt "Corporations are People" Romney might be superficially sympathetic to Will's argument, his actual thoughts on the subject turn out to be an incoherent mess.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Tuesday that he thinks teachers unions should be banned from making political contributions because union leaders often negotiate contracts with Democratic politicians they’ve helped elect, a situation he called “an extraordinary conflict of interest.”

“I believe that we simply can’t have a setting where the teachers unions are able to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians, and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interest of the kids,” Romney told host Brian Williams in a 45-minute appearance at NBC’s Education Nation Summit in New York.

He said it is “a mistake” to allow unions to make such donations, which he argued represent “an extraordinary conflict of interest.”

“I think we’ve got to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns,” he said. “It’s the wrong way for us to go. We have got to separate that.”
I doubt George Will needs to be reminded of this, but unions are corporations, which in the eyes of both Will and Romney makes them "people" with First Amendment rights. As posed to the President, Will's question comes down to how our nation should interpret legal precedents, apply constitutional language and weigh competing interests - and that's a discussion we should have.

For Romney, though, the question becomes, "Why do you want to completely shut down the speech rights of organizations that you have previously stated are 'people' who are entitled to constitutionally protected speech, including in the form of unlimited campaign contributions, based upon the content of their speech - what you believe they might say? Do you understand anything about First Amendment jurisprudence, content-based restrictions on speech, or equal protection under the laws? Does your defense of corporate free speech rights translate into a self-serving, unprincipled philosophy, "Speech should be free if it fills my campaign's coffers and helps me get elected, but if it might help my opponent it should be banned"?

(I'm also again left wondering, does George Will read his own newspaper?)

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