The Liberal Establishment vs. Straw-man Constitutionalists

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (and the nosy woman in the next booth who doesn’t want to subscribe but hates to feel left out),

As I write this, I’m having a devil of a time balancing my laptop on my spaghetti-strainer codpiece. But that’s my problem. More to the point, the new House of Representatives is reading the U.S. Constitution.

The reaction from the liberal establishment, not to mention the sweatier corners of the Left, has been both instructive and hilarious.

It’s a bit of a cliché in political commentary to say “watch what so-and-so does, not what he says.” And that’s good advice as far as it goes. But it misses something. The implication is often that if so-and-so says X but does Y, he never really believed X. But as we all know, in life we often have to do Y when we believe X. I say that with the confidence of a father who survived his daughter’s princess phase.

But one thing you can’t hide is what pisses you off. That’s why I love the Left’s profound annoyance with the Right’s fixation with the Constitution. This New York Times editorial is a perfect example of establishment-liberal pique. Some excerpts, with my comments in brackets:

A theatrical production of unusual pomposity [as opposed to theTimes’ usual pomposity] will open on Wednesday when Republicans assume control of the House for the 112th Congress. A rule will be passed requiring that every bill cite its basis in the Constitution. …

The empty gestures are officially intended to set a new tone in Washington, to demonstrate – presumably to the Republicans’ Tea Party supporters – that things are about to be done very differently. But it is far from clear what message is being sent by, for instance, reading aloud the nation’s foundational document. Is this group of Republicans really trying to suggest that they care more deeply about the Constitution than anyone else and will follow it more closely? [I don’t know about anyone else, but surely they intend to suggest they’ll follow it more closely than A) the Democratic party and B) the New York Times editorial board. Surely that’s a good, albeit easy, start?]

In any case, it is a presumptuous and self-righteous act, suggesting that they alone understand the true meaning of a text that the founders wisely left open to generations of reinterpretation. Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person. [Man, it took them longer than usual to play the race card.]

There is a similar air of vacuous fundamentalism [Translation: Stupid Christians!] in requiring that every bill cite the Constitutional power given to Congress to enact it. The new House leadership says this is necessary because the health care law and other measures that Republicans do not like have veered from the Constitution. But it is the judiciary that ultimately decides when a law is unconstitutional, not the transitory occupant of the speaker’s chair. [So wait: Congress doesn’t need to be concerned with whether the laws they pass are constitutional? That’s a standard destined to bite the Times in the ass.]

All of this, though, is simply eyewash – the equivalent of a flag-draped background to a speech – compared with the actual legislation the Republicans plan to pass. And though much of that has no possibility of being enacted, it does suggest the depth of the struggle to come. The bill tauntingly titled the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” has nothing to do with increasing employment and will never reach the Senate floor, but shows that the leadership is willing to threaten the hard-fought access to health care for millions of the uninsured, just to make a political point….

The one good thing about these meaningless rules and bills is that they finally seem to be prodding House Democrats into standing up for their own programs as they enter the minority….

The Republicans’ antics are a ghastly waste of time at a moment when the nation is expecting real leadership from Congress, and suggest that the new House leadership is still unable to make tough choices. Voters, no less than drama critics, prefer substance to overblown theatrics.

Now, by my count that’s like a half-dozen places where the Times says overt displays of fealty to the Constitution are “meaningless,” substance-free “theatrics,” “eyewash,” “vacuous,” etc. If it’s all so meaningless, why not simply applaud? Why not chalk it up to rhetorical bunting and move on?

Rarely have so many people been so terrified by the meaningless, the vacuous, the substance-free.

Scoring debater’s points on the Times’ hypocrisy and inconsistency – while entirely valid and no small amount of fun – is really not worth a lot of time (the Times has never failed to argue that symbolism it likes is worthwhile, from failed votes on stem cells to the fight over the Confederate flag). What’s intriguing here is just how pissed off the Times is that people think it’s important to consider the Constitution when drafting laws.

And that’s all the justification I need for the GOP’s meaningless, vacuous stunt. If it exposes the folks who get pissed off by such things, it’s done quite a lot.
Straw-man Constitutionalists One point I couldn’t get into my USA Today column on the “debate” over the Constitution is the constant mischaracterization of the conservative position on the Constitution.

They say that the Right “worships” the Constitution. They insist that conservatives believe it is “unalterable” or “sacred” just the way it is.

And then they proceed to mock conservatives for not understanding that the Founders never intended for the Constitution to be unalterable. Some of the more literate will even quote Jefferson, who believed that it should be updated every 20 years or so. Some of the more idiotic ones will tell you that without a “living” or “changing” Constitution we wouldn’t have freed the slaves or given the women the vote.

But conservatives don’t think the Constitution can’t be changed. They think it can be, and even should be, by the means provided for in the Constitution. The slaves were freed – with a constitutional amendment. Women got the vote – with a constitutional amendment.

But what’s truly infuriating is that when conservatives suggest that we should update the Constitution to meet the demands of the changing times, liberals suddenly start talking about the “sacredness” and “genius” of the Constitution. How dare conservatives meddle or “tinker” with it!? Stupid hypocritical Republicans! You talk about how much you love the Constitution but now you want to “tamper” with it!

Liberals have no problem with unelected judges illegitimately “breathing new life” and “new meaning” into the Constitution in order to deal with new circumstances, but they recoil at the idea of voters and elected politicians doing the same thing through legitimate mechanisms.

It’s almost as if they hate the idea of sharing power over the meaning of the Constitution with anyone who disagrees with them.

Overpopulation, They Cried People of a certain age – i.e., pretty much anyone younger than me – might have a hard time appreciating what a big deal overpopulation hysteria was back in the day. It drove many of the world’s most “enlightened” people to embrace some of the most unenlightened policies. It’s what caused many in the literary crowd to fall in love with gas chambers, long before anyone had ever heard of Nazis or Adolf Hitler. Remember this golden oldie from D. H. Lawrence?

“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick . . . the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks . . .”

The idea that we would all be crushed by the teeming hordes, swamped by the dark and dusky, outbred by the lowly, infected our thinking. Paul Ehrlich, who can never be mocked enough, predicted that billions would die from mass starvation, including tens of millions in America alone. Planned Parenthood’s roots lie in the aim of curbing the unwanted masses from growing.

In case you missed it, none of that happened. That is not to say that expanding populations and prosperity don’t create real problems. The oceans are overfished. Rainforests are being cut down – stupidly. Really awesome animals are losing habitat.

But those problems are what you get when you have rising wealth mixed with impoverished policymaking.

Anyway, I could go on about this stuff because I find it so interesting (and who among us doesn’t get a thrill up their leg when given the chance to bash Malthusians?), but really it’s just a cool excuse to link to this, which shows that you could put the entire population of the planet in Texas, with the population density of New York City, fed with just the food produced by the U.S. and with half the daily output of the Columbia River.

Yes, one can offer quibbles. For starters, traffic would suck!

But it’s still pretty illuminating.

Announcements

I was voted ”Favorite D.C. Blogger” among Twitter users, or something. That, and five bucks, will get me a date in Manila. But maybe that means you should follow me on Twitter, or something?

I’m leaving tomorrow for something called The Awakening in South Carolina. That’s almost all I know about it.

Before the Christmas break, I was scheduled to be on Special Report tonight, though I haven’t heard from anybody over there, so maybe they forgot.

I’ll be recording a Ricochet podcast with Mark Steyn today, should be out tomorrow. Stay tuned.

I’m giving a lecture or something at Hillsdale in early February.

While I announce my speaking gigs quite a bit, I don’t pimp for new work all that often. But as I look at the financial wreckage that was 2010, if anybody does want to book me for a paying gig, please contact Keppler Speakers.

That’s it for this week. Sorry no Debby stuff, no Canadian porn and no you can’t call me Phyllis (Just in case you were planning on asking). More jocularity next week.

 

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg