The Progressive Aristocracy

by Jim Geraghty
The Left seeks a separate set of rules for themselves.

In recent weeks, we examined the Obama administration’s willingness to reverse positions that it had once proudly proclaimed — on whether an individual mandate is necessary, whether the individual mandate is a tax, whether it is important that you can keep your plan or doctor, whether lobbyists should work in a president’s administration, whether a donor should be appointed U.S. ambassador, and so on. Then we noted environmentalists who said they would not criticize or attack lawmakers who supported the Keystone Pipeline, as long as they were Democrats.

Last week, we expanded the discussion to progressives’ wide-ranging willingness to contradict their own professed principles: gun-control proponents who travel with armed bodyguards, voucher opponents who send their kids to private schools, and minimum-wage-hike advocates who pay their staff less than the minimum wage, among others.

So what do progressives really want? If, as I suspect, the currency of progressivism isn’t policies or results, but emotions, what does that approach build? What kind of a country do you get when political leaders are driven by a desire to feel that they are more enlightened, noble, tolerant, wise, sensitive, conscious, and smart than most other people?

The evidence before us suggests progressives’ ideal society would be one where they enjoy great power to regulate the lives of others and impose restrictions and limitations they themselves would never accept in their own lives. Very few people object to an aristocracy with special rights and privileges as long as they’re in it.

For example, a key provision of Obamacare is a tax on “Cadillac health-care plans” — the architects of the legislation having concluded that part of the problem with America’s health-care system is that some employers are just too generous with their employees’ health insurance. Plans worth more than $10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for families face a 40 percent excise tax starting in 2018.

Members of Congress — at least the ones not covered by their spouse’s plans, as quite a few of them are — purchase their insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which offers about 300 different plans. On average, the government pays 72 percent of the premiums for its workers, according to FactCheck.org — a setup that has been characterized as, if not quite a “Cadillac” plan, then “the best Buick on the block.” The New York Times noted that, even though they are now required to purchase insurance through an exchange, lawmakers have “a larger menu of ‘gold plan’ insurance choices than most of their constituents have back home” and have an easier time navigating the exchange, with special “concierge” services provided by insurers. And the Times noted that members of Congress can receive care from the attending physician to Congress, conveniently located in the U.S. Capitol, for an annual fee of $576.

Thus, lawmakers who could rest assured they would see little change to their own plans enacted massive, complicated, headache-inducing changes to the nation’s system of health-insurance plans.

For what it is worth, the president signed up symbolically:

Obama, who is on vacation in Hawaii, had a staffer do the heavy lifting for him, a White House official says. He had to be enrolled in person, in no small part because his personal information is not readily available in the variety of government databases HealthCare.gov uses to verify identities.

“The act of the president signing up for insurance coverage through the DC exchange is symbolic since the president’s health care will continue to be provided by the military,” the official added.

Obviously, President Obama is unlikely to ever argue with an insurance company over his family’s care; former presidents and their spouses are entitled to medical treatment in military hospitals, paying at rates set by the Office of Management and Budget.

Then there is progressives’ appetite for special exemptions for energy use. On the campaign trail in 2008, then-senator Obama envisioned a not-too-distant future in which every American would embrace personal sacrifices in the name of combatting climate change: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say ‘okay.’”

This bold statement was hypocritical in a general sense, as almost all Washington lawmakers spend perhaps 90 percent of their lives in climate-controlled bubbles — awakening in a nice air-conditioned or heated home, then driving (or being driven) in an air-conditioned or heated car to work in an air-conditioned or heated workplace. (Quite a few lawmakers travel in SUVs and eat as much as they want, too.) But then there’s the personal hypocrisy, as relayed by the New York Times:

Obama, who hates the cold, had cranked up the thermostat.

“He’s from Hawaii, O.K.?” said Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, who occupies the small but strategically located office next door to his boss. “He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there.”

Progressives in the private sector also conclude that any amount of carbon emissions are okay, as long as you’re emitting them in the name of reducing carbon emissions: “While touting green technology, and lobbying the federal government on environmental policy, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt have put 3.4 million miles on their private jets in recent years, polluting the atmosphere with 100 million pounds of carbon dioxide,” the Blaze reported.

The progressive aristocracy is comfortable with our ever-more-complicated tax code because they can afford accountants to sort through it all, and compliance with the law is, at least for them, effectively optional. Recent years have demonstrated that if a prominent progressive breaks the law and fails to pay required taxes, the consequences are minimal.

In early 2009, new Treasury secretary Tim Geithner testified before Representative Charlie Rangel’s Ways and Means Committee — promising that the Obama administration intended to propose “a series of legislative and enforcement measures to reduce . . . tax evasion and avoidance.” Geithner failed to pay about $40,000 in taxes he owed while working for the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2004; Rangel was under investigation for tax evasion and failing to report income, for which he was eventually officially censured by Congress. Still, Geithner’s unpaid taxes were small potatoes compared with the $128,000 owed by former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, or the $287,273 in back taxes owed by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Or the $2.6 million Al Sharpton owed the IRS.

In the progressive mindset, laws are primarily designed to regulate and manage the actions of other people. Last month in the Daily Beast, columnist Jamelle Bouie (who is now writing for Slate) argued that allegations of illegal secret donations to the election campaign of Washington, D.C., mayor Vincent Gray didn’t really matter because he deemed Gray a good enough mayor:

As a D.C. resident, I don’t care that Gray funded a shadow campaign and violated campaign finance laws. It would be different if Gray’s activities were in service of his personal pocketbook — if he were funneling funds to a bank account, and not his campaign’s coffers. (Though, it is true that Thompson gave $10,000 to a “close family member” of Gray’s to settle debts with campaign workers, as well as $40,000 to a “close personal friend” of the mayor’s.) But this — illegal cash to fund a campaign — seems more benign; the “honest graft” of George Washington Plunkitt. . . .

I’m inclined to cut Gray a little slack. If Gray took money from Thompson, then it was to win an election and lead a city. And, as mayor of D.C., Gray has had a solid tenure, with lower crime and greater growth. Gray may be corrupt, but if it’s helped him build coalitions and utilize power then – looking at the full picture of municipal politics – that might be a good thing.

Progressives are increasingly open about the fact that their elected leaders can take actions that they would find scandalous and criminal if taken by their opponents. The Obama administration did not feel the need for any explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones until administration officials realized the president might not win a second term; they quickly formulated limitations and procedures to be implemented in case Romney won. Once Obama won reelection, the effort “lost some urgency,” according to the Times.

Put even more bluntly elsewhere in the Times:

Some liberals acknowledged in recent days that they were willing to accept policies they once would have deplored as long as they were in Mr. Obama’s hands, not Mr. Bush’s.

“We trust the president,” former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan said on Current TV. “And if this was Bush, I think that we would all be more up in arms because we wouldn’t trust that he would strike in a very targeted way and try to minimize damage rather than contain collateral damage.”

Apparently a progressive president is incapable of abusing the power of drone strikes.

Members of the aristocracy are even effectively exempt from gun laws. Recently a District of Columbia judge found a man guilty of “attempted possession of unlawful ammunition” for owning antique replica muzzleloader bullets. The man had no previous criminal charges. A few years ago, the attorney general for D.C. declined to prosecute NBC’s David Gregory for breaking the law against possessing a “high-capacity magazine” despite, in the prosecutor’s words, “the clarity of the violation of this important law.” Gregory held up the magazine during Meet the Press. The attorney general said prosecuting Gregory was not in the interest of public safety; it is unclear why the prosecution of a man in possession of antique replica muzzleloader bullets is in the interest of public safety.

Finally, progressives would happily accept a society where the choices of the lower classes about what food to eat was limited for their own good, while the special caste could continue to eat whatever they want. Thus we see former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg attempt to ban Slurpees (570 calories) and large Diet Cokes (zero or negligible calories) — beverage choices of the working class — but the law’s exemption for milk-based beverages means it wouldn’t hit the venti java chip Frappuccino from Starbucks (580 calories), the milkshake-in-disguise selection that’s more popular among the usually progressive-minded Manhattan Yuppies. Bloomberg’s large soda ban was struck down as unconstitutional.

Bloomberg himself has notoriously bad eating habits:

He dumps salt on almost everything, even saltine crackers. He devours burnt bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. He has a weakness for hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and fried chicken, washing them down with a glass of merlot.

And his snack of choice? Cheez-Its. . . . 

An examination of what enters the mayoral mouth reveals that Mr. Bloomberg is an omnivore with his own glaring indulgences, many of them at odds with his own policies. And he struggles mightily to restrain his appetite. . . . 

Mr. Bloomberg, 67, likes his popcorn so salty that it burns others’ lips. (At Gracie Mansion, the cooks deliver it to him with a salt shaker.) He sprinkles so much salt on his morning bagel “that it’s like a pretzel,” said the manager at Viand, a Greek diner near Mr. Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house.

Not even pizza is spared a coat of sodium. When the mayor sat down to eat a slice at Denino’s Pizzeria Tavern on Staten Island recently, this reporter spotted him applying six dashes of salt to it.

Bloomberg similarly sought a law requiring New Yorkers to separate their food scraps for composting; we all know the astronomical odds against the billionaire former mayor ever willingly personally partaking of the task of separating coffee grounds and the stuff growing hair in the Tupperware in the back of the refrigerator from the rest of his trash.

Progressive leaders want us to obey them, but not emulate them.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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