Commentary Magazine


The Walker Smear and the Rule of Law

Back in June, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Democratic and union opponents took a flyer on an attempt to smear the 2016 presidential hopeful as a lawbreaker. The story quickly collapsed once it became clear that Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe regarding his state’s arcane campaign-finance laws. But now the same media outlets that trumpeted the original misleading story and then buried the subsequent news that discredited it are back at it again trying to revive the non-scandal with new articles. But the problem with this round of accusations is the same as with the first one. Walker doesn’t appear to have violated any laws.

The original accusation that Walker had illegally coordinated independent campaign contributions during the 2012 attempt to recall him from office was big news back in June. Publications such as the New York Times and Politico treated the release of some documents from a convoluted litigation stemming from campaign-finance law investigations as damning evidence of Walker crossing the line between legal and illegal activity. The allegations were big political news for a day or two, but were just as quickly forgotten when a closer reading of the facts made it clear that a judge had already halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition before the stories were even published. The embarrassment of those who had treated this as a sign that Walker was doomed was compounded a week later when the lawyer for the prosecutors that had tried to pursue the investigation admitted that even if it were allowed to complete its work, Governor Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe despite claims to the contrary from the press.

So what prompted the news stories that appeared in the New York Times and Politico on Friday? The headlines of the pieces make it seem as if newly released emails prove that Walker is in trouble. But again, once you take the trouble to read the stories, the notion that this is a scandal that has, as the Times helpfully insinuates, “clouded the White House prospects of Mr. Walker” falls flat again.

The emails that were released by the prosecutors talk a lot about efforts to raise money to help Walker, but there is no actual evidence that he broke any laws. Just tidbits from his staff to the governor discussing the efforts to raise money to combat the massive influx of union and liberal money into the state that was aimed at reversing the verdict of the voters in 2010 when Walker and a Republican majority in the state legislature were elected on a platform to reform the state’s finances. The only thing the documents prove is that Walker might have encouraged support for those seeking to oppose the efforts of his opponents. That this might have been so is neither shocking nor evidence of criminal behavior. It is exactly what every other politician in the country does in order to navigate the forest of campaign finance laws that have done nothing to make the system more transparent but have provided plenty of work for lawyers. It is little wonder that a federal judge shut down the investigation as an unconstitutional attempt to suppress the free speech rights of some of the groups involved, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

But what is going on here is bigger than the political nastiness inspired by the 2011 effort by union thugs and their Democratic supporters to stop Walker and the Wisconsin legislature from changing laws that allowed state workers to hold the taxpayers hostage. What those behind this effort, ably assisted by the liberal media, are trying to do is no different from what happened earlier this month in Texas when Democrats managed to indict Governor Rick Perry for using his veto power to force the resignation of a prosecutor who had disgraced herself by being caught driving while drunk. In both Wisconsin and Texas, liberals have decided that the only way to derail politicians they can’t beat at the polls is to try and trump up legal cases against them. While no one expects Perry to ever serve a day in jail on such absurd charges and Walker isn’t even in personal legal peril, the point here is not so much to imprison these Republicans but to discredit them. The assumption is that legal trouble of any kind—even when they are the result of investigations with obvious political motives—will be enough to damage them for 2016. In Walker’s case, those behind these cases as well as their media collaborators are also hoping that their smears will make it easier to beat him in what shapes up to be a tough reelection race this fall in a battleground state.

The majority of voters are too smart to be fooled by these smears, and it’s likely that the efforts to take them down by such underhanded means will actually boost the popularity of both Perry and Walker among Republicans. But even if neither man is actually hurt by these cases, both liberals and conservatives should be worried about this political trend.

One of the hallmarks of dictatorships is the use of law to punish political opponents. The thing that has always separated the United States from banana republics and vicious authoritarian regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the inability of either political leaders or parties to imprison their rivals. But what we are witnessing in Texas and Wisconsin is the breakdown of the rule of law that should protect us against the kind of savage reprisals against those who would challenge Putin that we see in contemporary Russia.

As the trial of Bob MacDonnell, the former Republican governor of Virginia and the ongoing ethics probe of New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo shows, there are enough real scandals involving abuses of power or corruption to occupy the press and the public. But what is so awful about the attempts to take down Perry and Walker is the willingness of the political left to prioritize their naked lust for power over the rule of law. That a partisan press should seek to aid these efforts to play politics by other means rather than expose them is a disgrace. This is a trend that Americans should deplore no matter what they think about those governors or their ideology.

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