Gridlock in Washington politics is not an American problem but an American achievement, political commentator and journalist George Will said last month as part of the Dennis F. and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture hosted by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
The Holt Lecture aims to illuminate the intersection of public policy and communication. Dennis F. Holt, a longtime member of the USC Price Board of Councilors, founded Western International Media in 1970 and currently serves as chairman and CEO of U.S. International Media and Patriot Communications.
USC Price dean Jack H. Knott, who introduced the event, said of Dennis and his wife Brooks: “They’re helping us advance scholarship and education on this important topic. It’s their generosity that makes this and other Holt Lecture events possible.”
Will, a nationally syndicated political columnist for The Washington Post, spoke on the challenge of communicating policy complexities.
“I think we are very good in American journalism at telling you what happened yesterday or this morning,” Will said. “We’re not very good at relating what happened 10, 20, 80 or 100 years ago.”
Will captivated the audience at Town & Gown with his unique viewpoints that were backed up with historical context. Knott said Will was “always thoughtful and thought-provoking” and that he presented “well-articulated ideas worth hearing even if you disagree with him.”
Will illustrated his thinking on the relevance of history with reference to three topical matters – the emergence of super PACs in campaign funding, what he described as American monomania toward the office of the president, and the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case to decide whether Congress has the constitutional power to mandate the purchase of health insurance.
Will wants to do away with super PACs, the political action committees that can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and individuals to support a presidential candidate but are not allowed to coordinate directly with the candidate.
“What amazes me is how little is spent on politics in our country,” Will said. “It is said with a mixture of horror and awe that the Obama campaign might raise and spend a billion dollars. And it’s not inconceivable that the [Republican nominee] will also raise and spend a billion dollars. Think about it, $2 billion spent on presidential politics. That is approximately what the American people will spend on Easter candy.”
Will suggested that campaign regulation should be simplified to seven words: no cash, full disclosure, no foreign money.
“Let people give as much as they want to anyone they want,” Will said. “Put it up on the Internet at the close of business every day. If someone wants to take $100 million from the Philip Morris corporation, let them. Let the journalists wallow around in the information daily, and let the country make up its mind. It’s perfectly capable of doing so.”
Will called the extraordinary fascination with the president in this country un-American and the president’s annual State of the Union address the “most repellent item on our civic calendar.”
He noted that the Constitution requires only that the president report to Congress on the state of the union from time to time. George Washington and John Adams sent messages. Thomas Jefferson thought it contrary to the spirit of democracy for the executive to stand above the legislature.
Will believes the correct understanding of the Constitution makes for legislative supremacy. Woodrow Wilson began the current practice of the president going up and lecturing to Congress in 1913.
Will also loathes the deluge of public addresses made by the president. Washington delivered three speeches in his eight years in office, Adams made one a year, Jefferson totaled five and Will’s hero, James Madison, made none.
“Attempts to use the president to nationalize our American consciousness and politicize our political consciousness with presidential rhetoric is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Will said. “In the Federalist Papers, the word leader appears 11 times – 10 times as majority leader. Once it refers to the leaders of the American Revolution. But the other 10 times, the references to leaders are full of suspicion and warning of leaders who try to use political office to rouse the country.”
In March, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of the health care reform law. Will called it the “most interesting and important Supreme Court case in many a moon.” It goes to the heart of the Madisonian system of a federal government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers.
Will sees gridlock as a sign that this Madisonian system is at work. For the federal government to move, four concurrent majorities are needed – the House, the Senate, the president and the Supreme Court.
“It makes it move slowly, but it makes it move safely,” Will said. “It means the American people have to want something intensely and protractedly for it to happen.”
Will hopes for patience in politics but usually is left disappointed. He bristled at the emerging theme of Obama’s re-election campaign: “We can’t wait.”
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