Commentary Magazine


Topic: campaign-finance laws

The Walker Smear Collapses

Last week I wrote about the way the liberal mainstream media was trumpeting the rather slender evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in trouble over campaign fundraising. But yesterday, the story collapsed when the prosecutor cited in the original story denied the governor was in any legal peril. Predictably, the same outlets that promoted the first story are now burying the sequel.

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Last week I wrote about the way the liberal mainstream media was trumpeting the rather slender evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in trouble over campaign fundraising. But yesterday, the story collapsed when the prosecutor cited in the original story denied the governor was in any legal peril. Predictably, the same outlets that promoted the first story are now burying the sequel.

The original accusations that Walker was at the center of an investigation of a criminal probe of violations of Wisconsin’s arcane campaign finance laws was treated as a very big deal by liberal outlets hungry for material to use to discredit the governor. The words “criminal scheme” to describe his actions echoed around the Internet and liberal shows on MSNBC and CNN. As I noted then, the New York Times had the story at the top of its home page when it broke and then plastered it on the front page of their print edition the next day. In the original version of the piece, the paper discussed the allegations in detail but only mentioned the fact that two separate judges—one state and one federal—had already dismissed the charges and halted the investigation in the case.

But the flimsy nature of the story didn’t stop most liberal print and broadcast outlets from treating this as proof that Walker had been discredited as a national political figure. The actions that were alleged to be illegal are, in fact, legal just about everywhere but Wisconsin. Moreover, a Walker email discussing one of his campaign consultants that had been made public was widely discussed as somehow an admission of guilt on the governor’s part even though it was nothing of the kind. While most of those who wrote about the case admitted that it was doubtful that Walker would ever be charged with anything, they gleefully noted that, as TIME’s Michael Scherer wrote, “from a distance” it would look bad.

Walker’s Democratic opponent in his reelection race this year certainly thought so. Mary Burke has already been airing commercials highlighting the accusations in the hope that the charge would turn the tide in what was already a close contest.

But yesterday those counting on this so-called scandal putting an end to Walker’s career got some disappointing news. The lawyer representing the special prosecutors that had been running the now curtailed investigation announced that, despite the misleading headlines, the governor was not the object of any criminal probe. Despite the broad conclusions drawn from the documents uncovered last week, the lawyer said that “no conclusions” had been reached in the effort that has already been dismissed by judges as a politicized fishing expedition.

But don’t expect any apologies from the liberals who were burying Walker and speaking of him as a criminal. Needless to say, the same outlets that were screaming bloody murder about Walker’s guilt last week haven’t much to say about this development. The Times buried a story about it inside the paper in contrast to the front-page treatment it accorded the original allegation.

This case was just the latest example of liberal attempts to take out a man whom they fear. Walker was the most successful of all the Republican governors elected in 2010. He achieved groundbreaking reforms that freed his state of the tyranny of state worker unions and their contracts that were burying Wisconsin (and many other states) in debt. That put him in the cross hairs of Democrats and their thuggish union allies that employed intimidation tactics to thwart the state legislature’s ability to function. When that failed they attempted to use a recall vote to throw Walker out of office that was no more successful than earlier efforts.

Liberal hate transformed Walker from a little known county executive four years ago into a conservative folk hero with a legitimate shot at a 2016 presidential run. Thus it was hardly surprising that many of the same people who have been denouncing his reformist policies were quick to seize on anything that would besmirch his reputation. But while liberals had high hopes for this story a week ago, it seems now they can only console themselves with the thought that the endless repetition of the word “criminal” in the same sentence with Walker’s name will have done enough damage to even the odds in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race. It remains to be seen whether the debunking of this “scandal” will undo the harm that the initial reports caused.

Like previous efforts to knock off Walker, this story flopped. Though he’s in for a tough fight to win reelection, liberals have been writing his political obituary almost continuously since he first took office in 2011. It may be that by overreaching in this manner, the left has once again handed Walker a stick with which to beat them. Just as the recall effort drew more attention to the dictatorial hold on the state treasury that unions were seeking to defend than any of Walker’s shortcomings, it may be that this “scandal” may have just served as a reminder to voters of media bias rather than any fault on the part of the governor.

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Liberals Are Afraid of Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

To be fair, no Republican governor in the country challenged liberal orthodoxy and Democrat interest groups the way Walker did after he took office in 2011. By seeking to reform the state’s finances and prevent state worker unions from continuing to blackmail the taxpayers, Walker stepped on what has always been the third rail of American politics. Yet he won that political battle despite thuggish efforts by Democrats and unions to intimidate Walker and other Republicans as well as an attempt to shut down the Wisconsin legislature (not surprisingly liberals who were outraged at last year’s federal government shutdown had no problem with what Democrats did in that instance). Not satisfied with that fiasco, the unions and Democrats wasted a year of effort and millions of dollars in precious campaign funds on a futile recall election the following year that only served to solidify his status as a GOP star.

While past efforts failed, the coverage in liberal publications of today’s allegations read as if the left thinks they’ve found gold here. The substance of the story is that a senior official of Walker’s recall defense campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. The laws that this activity allegedly violates are so complicated that not even several paragraphs of prose and Venn diagrams serve to provide a clear explanation of just why this was so terrible. Some, like TIME’s Michael Scherer, are also claiming that Walker “tacitly admitted” guilt in the case in an email in which he boasted that campaign consultant R.J. Johnson was successfully running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state.” But only a rabid anti-Walker partisan can read that statement as anything but applause for an effort in which the local GOP campaigns in the state’s congressional districts were acting in concert. Not even Wisconsin’s absurd maze of campaign finance laws makes that illegal. Nor does another email that refers to Johnson’s work in coordinating spending from various groups prove that he broke any law. It’s little wonder that courts have halted this politicized charade. Scherer admits the law is unclear and that every judge who has ruled on the case has tossed it out. But his point is that “from a distance” the charges will still look bad and besmirch Walker’s reputation.

Though Walker has maintained a steady lead in polls against a Democratic challenger, he has his hands full in a close race in what remains a rare example of a true swing state. But Democrats seem to sense that, despite his lack of experience on the national stage, Walker is exactly the sort of candidate who could give them trouble. He not only is well liked by the entire spectrum of Republican constituencies including Tea Partiers, business groups, and the so-called establishment. His lack of a Washington resume positions him perfectly against a member of the permanent government in Hillary Clinton. His middle class origins also will enable him to appeal to working and middle class Americans who have, as Rick Santorum has rightly pointed out, felt left out by recent GOP campaigns.

But neither Hillary nor any other Democrat will have to worry further about Walker if scurrilous charges of racism or more stray allegations about law breaking help beat him in 2014. As far as Democrats are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether these stories are based on substance or innuendo. All that counts is if they can put a dent in Walker’s well-earned image as a hard-working reform-minded governor. But they should be wary of overreaching as they did in the 2012 recall. So far, Walker has proved that the more liberals try to destroy him, the stronger he gets. It also strengthens Walker’s popularity among Republicans, which is the last thing that liberals want, since they hope the GOP nominates a candidate who, unlike Walker, will be easily branded as a right-wing extremist.

It’s hard to say whether this latest charge will stick. But the disproportionate effort the left has invested in destroying Walker illustrates how much they fear him.

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John Paul Stevens’s War on Speech

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case Democrats are still trying to turn back the judicial tide that is running against the campaign finance laws they cherish. In that landmark case, the court spiked the government’s efforts to regulate independent expenditures used to promote issues and to express an opinion about candidates. The court’s recent ruling in the McCutcheon case in which it eliminated the cap on aggregate donations has only deepened their frustration. As far as President Obama is concerned these decisions are all about an effort to allow the wealthy to buy American democracy. As it turns out one of the primary boosters of this point of view is the man who wrote the dissent in Citizens United, retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

Stevens is back in the public eye this month primarily to promote a new book he has written in which he proposes six new Constitutional Amendments which would essentially abrogate much of the Bill of Rights by granting the government broad powers to restrict both free speech (First Amendment) and gun rights (Second Amendment). As such, he was recruited to come to Capitol Hill yesterday to lend support for a futile Democratic effort to create an amendment to overturn the impact of Citizens United. As Seth noted earlier, this is a futile exercise as the chances of any such Amendment being passed are less than zero. But it was nonetheless interesting in that it allowed Stevens yet another platform from which he could promote his idea that “money is not speech.”

These comments were widely applauded on the left, but some of his comments as well as others made during the course of his book tour illustrate the slippery slope that Stevens and his Democratic cheerleaders wish to take the country down. Far from proving his case that what the country needs are more restrictions on the ability of citizens to make their voices heard on issues, the upshot of this debate makes it all the more clear that the real focus here is on silencing views they find inconvenient.

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Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case Democrats are still trying to turn back the judicial tide that is running against the campaign finance laws they cherish. In that landmark case, the court spiked the government’s efforts to regulate independent expenditures used to promote issues and to express an opinion about candidates. The court’s recent ruling in the McCutcheon case in which it eliminated the cap on aggregate donations has only deepened their frustration. As far as President Obama is concerned these decisions are all about an effort to allow the wealthy to buy American democracy. As it turns out one of the primary boosters of this point of view is the man who wrote the dissent in Citizens United, retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

Stevens is back in the public eye this month primarily to promote a new book he has written in which he proposes six new Constitutional Amendments which would essentially abrogate much of the Bill of Rights by granting the government broad powers to restrict both free speech (First Amendment) and gun rights (Second Amendment). As such, he was recruited to come to Capitol Hill yesterday to lend support for a futile Democratic effort to create an amendment to overturn the impact of Citizens United. As Seth noted earlier, this is a futile exercise as the chances of any such Amendment being passed are less than zero. But it was nonetheless interesting in that it allowed Stevens yet another platform from which he could promote his idea that “money is not speech.”

These comments were widely applauded on the left, but some of his comments as well as others made during the course of his book tour illustrate the slippery slope that Stevens and his Democratic cheerleaders wish to take the country down. Far from proving his case that what the country needs are more restrictions on the ability of citizens to make their voices heard on issues, the upshot of this debate makes it all the more clear that the real focus here is on silencing views they find inconvenient.

Stevens backed up his assertion yesterday that money can’t be equated with speech by claiming that political speech is just one of the things that campaign contributions can be. The example of a non-speech expenditure that popped into his mind was the Watergate break-in that was, he pointed out, financed from contributions to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. Citing Watergate in the context of a campaign finance debate is, in one sense, appropriate, because the entire confusing welter of laws produced by the federal government in a quixotic attempt to keep money out of politics started with the fallout from that incident. But outrageous and unusual examples of criminal behavior like Watergate don’t tell us much about the way politics is practiced in the United States.

After all, liberals aren’t worried that Republicans are raising money to finance squads of comically incompetent unemployed ex-spooks to spy on their campaign headquarters, as Nixon did. Their problem with the effort to overturn these laws is that doing so opens up the public square to far more political speech. Stevens and the Democrats think all this speech is creating an unfair playing field in politics and they want to level it off by making it harder for candidates and independent groups to raise the kind of money needed to get their messages out. According to Stevens, Citizens United’s protection of independent expenditures has created vast amounts of “dark money” that cannot be directly traced back to donors, thus raising the possibility that sinister forces will manipulate and purchase the elections of favored candidates. But as we learned with the recent controversy that drove the CEO of Mozilla from his job because of a contribution to California’s Prop 8 campaign, stripping anonymity from donors is no different than abolishing the secret ballot.

The last 40 years have shown that the main effect of campaign finance laws if not their prime motive is to protect incumbents and to silence outlier movements that seek to protest against the political establishment of both major parties. The campaign finance laws also maximize the impact of the mainstream media that can slant the news or editorialize as much as they like in order to promote or trash candidates and causes.

But while money is not needed to be able to express one’s point of view at a Maine town hall meeting—the example of pure democracy repeatedly cited by Senator Angus King who chaired the committee hearing on the law—it is absolutely necessary if one is to mount a challenge to an incumbent member of the House or the Senate or to get one’s ideas about any issue before the public.

Money has and will always be the mother’s milk of politics and no law will ever be able to change that. But the point here is that it is the primary way in our mass media culture in which to reach other Americans. As such, it has become, more than it ever was before, absolutely essential to the expression of political speech. And if there was anything that the Founders of our republic intended to insulate from government interference it was political speech.

As a feature in the New York Times about Stevens’s book pointed out, the former justice isn’t just interested in restricting campaign expenditures but is willing to listen to arguments about banning or at least placing restrictions on the publication of books about politics. That sentiment alone should raise alarms to Americans about the intent of these laws no matter whether they are liberals or conservatives.

When placed in that context, there’s no question that Justice Stevens’s own book as well as the efforts of Democrats to pass amendments trashing the Bill of Rights isn’t so much about playing fair as it is in waging a war on speech.

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Free Speech Can’t Be Redistributed

In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

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In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

As Politico noted yesterday, the main beneficiaries of a victory for McCutcheon would be both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Since the law specifically restricts the ability of donors to contribute to these national political institutions, money instead flows to unaccountable independents like those protected by Citizens United. There is nothing wrong with independent groups having their say, and the McCain-Feingold effort to stop them was an offense to democracy and, as the court rightly noted, an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. But if those interested in politics are able to give more to the national party committees and the candidates themselves, the result will be that the players in elections can have a greater say in campaigns and therefore be more accountable for what is said on their behalf.

Stopping wealthy individuals from giving more to parties and candidates won’t keep money out of politics. Nothing will do that, especially when you consider that the real corruption in government comes from the ability of politicians to use earmarks and other legislative tricks to dole out goodies to their allies or favored constituencies. The smart way to attack that problem is not by starving non-incumbents who have more problems raising funds than incumbents or making it difficult for others to donate to multiple candidates. Limiting the ability of Congress to play that game with earmarks and other legislative tricks will do more to keep the system honest than 40 years of campaign finance laws have done.

But at the heart of this case is the fundamental drive on the part of the political left to treat political speech as a commodity that can be regulated like interstate commerce. They don’t trust the ability of the people to sort out the varied political messages with which they are bombarded. Instead, they want to dole out political speech in small packages. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench on Tuesday that limits on contributions give the “little people” more say. But what she really wants to do is limit everyone’s speech. The Constitution protects the right of all citizens, rich or poor, to speech. The law cannot favor some at the expense of others. Income may be redistributed via the tax laws if the Congress wills it, but free speech cannot be handled in the same manner. That is especially true when one considers that a citizen who spends money on an independent committee has no such restrictions but that one who gives to a candidate or a party is severely limited. Elections are influenced by campaign expenditures just as they are by many factors, but the notion that an office can be bought is given the lie by the failure of many well-funded or wealthy politicians.

The campaign finance laws have created a powerful bureaucracy and a set of laws that force politicians and even private citizens who wish to speak up to hire lawyers if they want to avoid being prosecuted for minute violations of arcane regulations. This does nothing to enhance democracy. The court should follow up on the blow it struck for free speech in Citizens United in McCutcheon. If it does, the only real losers will be those liberals who fear an unrestricted debate of the issues.

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A Rabbi Who Can’t Tell the Difference Between Iran and America

Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

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Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

The post (hat tip to Alan Luxenberg of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute) read as follows:

Of course there is a difference and yet there is something strangely parallel how in Iran you have to be vetted by the guardian council of clerics to run for president while in the United States, while you don’t have to be vetted by clerics, you have to be vetted by concentrations of private capital. With very rare exceptions unless you pass their filter, you don’t enter the political system. I guess one way or another it is always clerics…the only question being just what religion they are peddling, using, distorting? to preserve and expand their power…yes yes yes i would rather live here than in Iran…

While we’re glad that Kula prefers to dwell in the American theocracy of “private capital” to the pleasures of life in an Islamist state where Jews are demonized, that is about the only thought here that makes any sense. Suffice it to say that there is nothing remotely analogous about the process by which American politicians seek to raise money from citizens and groups and a system that rules as ineligible for inclusion on a ballot anyone who diverges even a smidge from the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Some on the left may lament the fact that Americans of all stripes and convictions can individually or collectively mobilize their financial resources to promote political speech or candidates as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They may prefer a system in which all candidates are restricted to public funds. That would restrict the ability of citizens to express their opinions and preferences as well as to reinforce the influence of the mainstream liberal media. But to pretend that a system that provides opportunity for all comers to test their popularity and the strength of their ideas are also no different from the fake elections conducted in Iran is beyond absurd.

As an example of political insight, Kula’s rant ranks somewhere between the musings of a Marxist high school sophomore and the product of an Occupy Wall Street tent city seminar conducted in a haze of marijuana smoke. But what is really troubling about it is not so much an inane argument for campaign finance laws as is his not-so-subtle effort to legitimize the regime in Tehran or at least to defuse support for action against Iran.

At a time when Iran’s theocratic regime that has threatened genocide against Israel and the Jewish people continues to work toward the creation of a nuclear weapon to accomplish that despicable goal, for someone who claims the mantle of leadership to be making such specious analogies is a blow to efforts to push for Jewish unity on the issue of Iran. That CLAL would tolerate this type of behavior from its head speaks volumes about how far the group has fallen since Greenberg’s day.

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Schneiderman’s Partisan Fishing Expedition

Liberals are still seething over the way the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Citizens United decision in the Montana campaign finance law case where state restrictions on political spending were rightly overruled. But this defense of free speech rights will not go unanswered by a Democratic Party that thinks allowing citizens and groups to support ideas and candidates is a scandal. That’s why New York’s left-wing attorney general is launching a brazenly partisan attack on the right of political speech in the guise of an investigation of alleged violations of the tax code.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is a hard-line liberal who has been itching to use his post to both fight for restrictive campaign finance laws and to garner the publicity that will enable him to advance his career. On the surface, Schneiderman is merely conducting a probe into contributions to tax-exempt groups. But by focusing his attention on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business conservative group, the political intent of the investigation is obvious.

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Liberals are still seething over the way the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Citizens United decision in the Montana campaign finance law case where state restrictions on political spending were rightly overruled. But this defense of free speech rights will not go unanswered by a Democratic Party that thinks allowing citizens and groups to support ideas and candidates is a scandal. That’s why New York’s left-wing attorney general is launching a brazenly partisan attack on the right of political speech in the guise of an investigation of alleged violations of the tax code.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is a hard-line liberal who has been itching to use his post to both fight for restrictive campaign finance laws and to garner the publicity that will enable him to advance his career. On the surface, Schneiderman is merely conducting a probe into contributions to tax-exempt groups. But by focusing his attention on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business conservative group, the political intent of the investigation is obvious.

Schneiderman isn’t the first Democrat to try to use the post of New York attorney general to conduct politicized prosecutions to burnish his reputation. The now disgraced Eliot Spitzer’s attacks on Wall Street paved the way for his path to the governorship of the state. Current Governor Andrew Cuomo also used the post in this manner. But Schneiderman is not just another New York Democrat on the make. He’s an ideologue who campaigned on support for campaign finance laws and now appears to be willing to use his power to conduct an inquisition of conservative non-profits that will make him the darling of the left around the nation.

There is no obvious evidence of wrongdoing of any kind or legal violations on the part of the National Chamber Foundation, the Starr Foundation or the Chamber itself, though all have received subpoenas from Schneiderman. There is nothing unusual in the financing of some of the group’s activities by non-profit foundations. But what they are guilty of is being conservative groups in the crosshairs of leftist opponents seeking to brand their donations as somehow running afoul of the laws governing non-profits because of their advocacy for tort-reform, a cause that doesn’t sit well with Democratic constituencies such as trial lawyers and unions.

The same amorphous questions could be put to any non-profit involved in public advocacy. But political observers on both sides of the aisle understand that when probes like this are conducted, the only possible motivation is not respect for the law but a desire to criminalize political opponents.

Local political payback is also involved here because the Starr Group is headed by former AIG chair Maurice R. Greenberg, who was driven out of the country by a vindictive and ultimately failed prosecution launched by Spitzer during his climb up the greasy pole of New York politics.

Above all, the Schneiderman fishing expedition is an attempt to supply some proof that the Citizens United decision has unleashed a wave of political corruption, a key talking point for liberal critics of the landmark free speech case. In spite of their allegations that allowing organizations, including labor unions and other left-wing groups, to spend to promote their ideas, has despoiled politics, all Citizens United has done is to increase the amount of political speech. That is antithetical to leftists who wish to regulate the marketplace of ideas and repress the efforts of grassroots groups to fight back against big government initiatives.

Given the almost unlimited power of Schneiderman to conduct his probe, conservative groups should expect to be harassed in the coming months and years. But while Schneiderman and his cheerleaders in the mainstream press will represent this investigation as a public spirited attempt to rein in corruption, there can be no doubt that it is merely an unprincipled political witch hunt whose purpose is to cripple the efforts of conservative groups.

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Edwards Verdict Averts Miscarriage of Justice

To their credit, the jury in the John Edwards trial wasn’t bamboozled by the federal effort to treat the former presidential candidate’s personal misconduct as a federal crime. Nor did they validate the government’s effort to expand the scope of election finance laws by treating any expenditure relating to a candidate as being a campaign contribution. After a week of deliberations following a long trial and a confusing charge from the judge, Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury were deadlocked on the other five counts. A mistrial was declared on the unresolved issues, meaning the Justice Department could return to the federal court in North Carolina to try Edwards again. But after an expensive and time-consuming flop, the U.S. Attorney should take the hint. It’s time to end the government’s attempt to jail the unpopular former senator and Democratic presidential candidate.

Like the high profile trials of people like Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds and the ongoing prosecution of Roger Clemens, Edwards was singled out because he is famous, rich and extremely disliked by the general public. Edwards’ personal misbehavior made him one of the most loathsome people in the country. But there was no justification for putting him on trial for lying to his now-deceased wife and the country about his affair and fathering an illegitimate child with a campaign videographer. As unjustified as the first attempt to use the campaign finance laws to punish him was, a second bite of the apple would be outrageous.

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To their credit, the jury in the John Edwards trial wasn’t bamboozled by the federal effort to treat the former presidential candidate’s personal misconduct as a federal crime. Nor did they validate the government’s effort to expand the scope of election finance laws by treating any expenditure relating to a candidate as being a campaign contribution. After a week of deliberations following a long trial and a confusing charge from the judge, Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury were deadlocked on the other five counts. A mistrial was declared on the unresolved issues, meaning the Justice Department could return to the federal court in North Carolina to try Edwards again. But after an expensive and time-consuming flop, the U.S. Attorney should take the hint. It’s time to end the government’s attempt to jail the unpopular former senator and Democratic presidential candidate.

Like the high profile trials of people like Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds and the ongoing prosecution of Roger Clemens, Edwards was singled out because he is famous, rich and extremely disliked by the general public. Edwards’ personal misbehavior made him one of the most loathsome people in the country. But there was no justification for putting him on trial for lying to his now-deceased wife and the country about his affair and fathering an illegitimate child with a campaign videographer. As unjustified as the first attempt to use the campaign finance laws to punish him was, a second bite of the apple would be outrageous.

As I previously noted, there was a broader principle at stake in this trial than just whether Edwards would be further humiliated for his disgraceful conduct. Had the government succeeded in getting a judge and jury to agree that gifts from friends that were used to try and cover up his affair were campaign contributions, it would have opened up every politician in the country to prosecution on virtually any financial transaction while they were running for office. It may be, as some have pointed out, that the courts’ legalization of independent advocacy groups under the Citizens United decision would have provided a venue for what Edwards’ friends did in 2008. But a guilty verdict would still have validated a power grab to the government that could have made a great deal of political mischief in the hands of partisan prosecutors.

Having been beaten in court, the prosecutors should give up on this ill-considered celebrity scalp hunt and move on to trying real criminals. Edwards deserves to be treated as a pariah, but had he been convicted, it would have been a massive miscarriage of justice. Though we have often had reason to ponder the wisdom of jury trials, in this case the system appears to have worked.

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Edwards Show Trial Perverts Justice

As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

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As I wrote before the federal trial of John Edwards on campaign finance violation charges began, the former Democratic senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate is an easy person to dislike. No doubt many, if not most Americans, think a federal prison camp is too easy a punishment for a pompous, vain gasbag who publicly cheated on a much-admired wife while she was dying of cancer. But being a loathsome scoundrel is not a federal offense. Then again neither are the deeds for which federal prosecutors seek to have him jailed.

This truth was brought home today in court when the judge ruled the defense couldn’t present as a witness a former head of the Federal Elections Commission who was prepared to testify that Edwards’s actions that are alleged by the government to be crimes, were, in fact, not violations of the law. In spite of the inexplicable decision to exclude that rather pertinent piece of evidence, the defense was able to present the testimony of the chief financial officer of his campaign, who pointed out that the FEC actually approved the records submitted by his 2008 presidential effort. That renders the prosecutors’ attempt to claim the failure to report the money a prominent supporter donated to help cover up his affair was a crime a legal absurdity. The day’s events make it more clear than ever what is going on in this case is not just a typical example of prosecutorial overreach in which the government seeks to make an example of an unpopular rich person. Rather, it is an unprincipled and dangerous attempt to extend the reach of an already ambiguous set of laws in order to criminalize campaign donations.

The government seems to think that by treating any money spent on behalf of a presidential candidate as a reportable donation it can establish a broad legal precedent. Though few would weep if Edwards were jailed because of the money spent to hush up his tawdry personal scandals, if this is a crime, then virtually anything done with or on behalf of a candidate even if it is not spent on campaign expenses can be treated as a donation and therefore be regulated. Were the courts to let them get away with this sleight of hand legal maneuver, it would be a huge power grab on the part of the federal government. It would give U.S. attorneys and their masters at the Justice Department the ability to trump up prosecutions against any politician they didn’t like, including those who are not quite as hard to like as John Edwards.

This cannot be allowed to happen. What is going on in that courtroom is nothing less than a show trial with potentially dangerous consequences for not only politicians but also the free speech rights of Americans to express political opinions that are financed by contributions. We already knew the movement to enact increasingly onerous and confusing campaign finance laws was a blight on our democracy. But the effort to criminalize John Edwards’s peccadilloes is particularly perilous for the future of fair elections.

Unfortunately, the trial judge in this case may have bought into the elastic logic that is the foundation of the government’s case. We can only hope that even if the jury in this case is blind to the prosecution’s misconduct here that an appeals court will eventually point out that what is going on in North Carolina is a travesty of justice.

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Justice Requires Acquittal of a Corrupt Politician

Jury selection starts today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards on six felony charges of federal campaign finance law violations involving an alleged conspiracy and the making of false statements. Despite the mountain of evidence that they claim backs up these allegations, the prosecutors’ main weapon in the trial will be the fact that Edwards is generally held to be among the most repulsive politicians to stride across our national stage in a generation. He is a vain, puffed up politician who was always something of a fraud even in his heyday. He is also a liar who cheated on his terminally ill wife and did everything possible to deceive the public about his affair and the child he fathered with his mistress. But that’s also the problem with this case. Absent Edward’s reputation as bottom-feeder, there is no way that any prosecutor would seek to bring anyone else to court on such flimsy charges.

The irony here is that although John Edwards is the quintessential sleazy politician who has earned the public’s scorn, his trial will actually be a crucial test of a key principle: Whether the Justice Department can interpret the byzantine and vague campaign finance laws so as to treat virtually anything a candidate gets as an official contribution that can be regulated. The case illustrates a fundamental principle of the legal system that demands that even the most loathsome of citizens deserves the same protections and rights as the most righteous. Though Americans may well think Edwards deserves a possible sentence of up to 30 years and $1.5 million in fines for his reprehensible conduct toward his late wife, he must be acquitted if we are to prevent the government from assuming more power that it could use against worthier citizens.

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Jury selection starts today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards on six felony charges of federal campaign finance law violations involving an alleged conspiracy and the making of false statements. Despite the mountain of evidence that they claim backs up these allegations, the prosecutors’ main weapon in the trial will be the fact that Edwards is generally held to be among the most repulsive politicians to stride across our national stage in a generation. He is a vain, puffed up politician who was always something of a fraud even in his heyday. He is also a liar who cheated on his terminally ill wife and did everything possible to deceive the public about his affair and the child he fathered with his mistress. But that’s also the problem with this case. Absent Edward’s reputation as bottom-feeder, there is no way that any prosecutor would seek to bring anyone else to court on such flimsy charges.

The irony here is that although John Edwards is the quintessential sleazy politician who has earned the public’s scorn, his trial will actually be a crucial test of a key principle: Whether the Justice Department can interpret the byzantine and vague campaign finance laws so as to treat virtually anything a candidate gets as an official contribution that can be regulated. The case illustrates a fundamental principle of the legal system that demands that even the most loathsome of citizens deserves the same protections and rights as the most righteous. Though Americans may well think Edwards deserves a possible sentence of up to 30 years and $1.5 million in fines for his reprehensible conduct toward his late wife, he must be acquitted if we are to prevent the government from assuming more power that it could use against worthier citizens.

John Edwards is an easy man to despise. His treatment of his wife and family and friends was awful. But these are private failings. The willingness of the press to avoid coverage of his personal conduct while he was a viable contender for his party’s presidential nomination was the real public scandal here.

There’s no question that Edwards behaved immorally by arranging for two wealthy friends and supporters to provide money for his mistress so his wife wouldn’t discover his affair. But the money given to Rielle Hunter, the equally sleazy campaign videographer who gave birth to Edwards’ child, was not a crime in the sense of the word that we normally use when discussing the court system. Gift taxes were paid on the money that was not funneled through Edwards’ presidential campaign accounts. The government’s attempt to treat this arrangement as an illegal campaign contribution for which he can be sent to jail for decades is an unprecedented attempt to expand the scope of laws that already require candidates to hire lawyers just to understand.

While the Justice Department will attempt to treat this case as the unraveling of a criminal conspiracy, what they are really doing is capitalizing on a tabloid scandal. The only reason Edwards is on trial is because he is a rich, famous and extremely unpopular person. Ambitious prosecutors believe they can convince a jury that is likely to view Edwards with as much disdain as the rest of the country that because his behavior was wrong and money was involved, that it was somehow a criminal affair.

What they are doing here is a classic case of prosecutorial overreach in which the government attempts to criminalize conduct that is worthy of censure but doesn’t actually constitute a violation of the law. Even worse, by expanding the reach of campaign finance laws, a guilty verdict against Edwards would strengthen the ability of the government to criminalize virtually any aspect of a candidate’s life. In the hands of unscrupulous officials, these laws could become a weapon to use against political enemies in a manner that could place even the most ethical politicians in the dock. Rather than give the government more power over this sphere, we need to pare back the byzantine maze of regulations.

John Edwards may well be the epitome of all that is wrong with American politics. But his prosecution symbolizes everything that is corrupt about the justice system.

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Schumer’s End Run on the Court Hasn’t a Chance

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

Politics is never short of irony. It was predictable that the Democrats would introduce legislation that attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down campaign-finance laws that sought to restrict political speech. To justify this stand, they claim they are standing up to “corporate America.” But it’s more than a little ironic that the Senate sponsor of this bill is Charles Schumer of New York, the man who has spent most of the past decade helping the Democrats raise big bucks from, you guessed it, corporate America.

The bill, as described in today’s New York Times will be a patchwork of restrictions as well as disclosure requirements for expenditures. But in spite of the fact that Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen claim their bill will comply with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, it is pretty clear that it does not. The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission specifically prohibited bans aimed at silencing specific groups or classes of persons or corporations. But the Democrat bill, though it targets corporations that are politically unpopular — government contractors, recipients of federal bailout money, and foreign corporations — clearly contravenes the Court’s ruling. This attempt to prohibit political commercials paid for by such groups is exactly the sort of thing that the majority ruling singled out as a violation of the First Amendment.

The Times quotes Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and the driving force behind the movement to overturn such unconstitutional infringements of free speech, as saying that the Democrats’ bill obviously flouts the law. Since the sponsors of the bill have presented it as a way of curbing the exact sort of spending that the Court said was legal, all he would have to do to overturn this piece of legislation is to merely quote its authors.

Running against “corporate America” is always good politics, but citizens do not lose their right to speak out on political issues or elections when they band together to form interest groups or corporations. The goal of Schumer’s bill, like the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that spawned the Citizens United case, is to silence entire classes of political speakers. The only winners in such a scheme are not the people or the principle of fair elections but the politicians and media corporations that have always been able to spend as much as they like in pursuit of whatever political cause or candidate they prefer. While more disclosure of expenditures is always welcome, it must also be done in such a way as to make compliance feasible. As the 2008 election proved, when Barack Obama raised vast sums on the Internet, full disclosure takes time and must be carefully done lest confidential financial information (like individual credit-card numbers) be published along with the names of contributors.

It is unlikely that the Schumer–Van Hollen bill will get anywhere this year despite the histrionics of the sponsors. But it is worth noting the blatant hypocrisy of Schumer, the poster child for crony capitalism whose fundraising efforts have been the nexus of a flood of corporate contributions to the Democratic party in recent years, claiming to be the defender of the ordinary guy against the influence of corporate money.

Also interesting is the silence of the former paladin of campaign-finance reform: Senator John McCain. If there was one issue above all others that alienated the Republican base from the 2008 GOP presidential candidate it was his championing of a “reform” that sought to restrict political speech. Facing a right-wing primary challenge for re-election this year, McCain’s office could only say that “the Supreme Court has spoken.” Yes, it has. And while President Obama and Schumer may play the demagogue on this issue, supporters of free speech can be thankful that the conservative majority on the Court has, at least for now, had the last word on this issue.

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