‘It’s just hortatory.” That’s what judges are wont to tell litigators who try to get courts to order some course of action based on the preamble of a law. The preamble is the big wind, the hot air: lawgivers covering themselves in glory, detailing the high-minded, selfless motivation that prompts them to act. Then comes the rain. That’s the consequential part, the nuts and bolts of what is to be done. It is that, and not the preamble, that matters. And it’s usually significantly more timid — as in big wind, no rain.
That is the Republicans’ freshly unveiled Pledge to America: big wind, no rain. It is little wonder that, in patting themselves on the back, the authors keep talking about the preamble: how uplifting it is, what a paean to individual liberty, what a contrasting vision it marks from the nanny-state status quo. The preamble is the part Republicans did not write. It’s the part they lifted from America’s Founders — primarily, from the Declaration of Independence.
Nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, it’s an admirable bar to set, provided you intend to live up to it. The pledge doesn’t come close. In fact, in laying out the “self-governing society,” the GOP could not even get out of the preamble without shrinking from the Declaration’s bold blueprint.
A FORM, NOT AN AGENDA
After recounting the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that, the Declaration says, “Governments are instituted among men” in order to secure, the pledge chirps: “Whenever the agenda of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to institute a new governing agenda and set a different course.” Contrary to the pledge writers’ claim, however, that is not the way this “first principle” was proclaimed in the Declaration. The founders actually said, “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
For the Founders, government did not have an “agenda.” It was not an independent entity, a player in the game that has its own interests and, therefore, the right to compete with the other players — the people — in a battle over whose interests should rule the day. Government was just a “form,” a neutral framework through which free people pursued their “safety and happiness,” with a guarantee only that the pursuit would not be unfairly impeded, not a guarantee against failure.
Government got an “agenda” thanks to the establishment of the welfare state. And there are no neutral agendas. Unavoidably, an agenda means elevating some interests at the expense of others. Moreover, given that government has no personal assets, favoring some citizens at the expense of others necessarily implies the redistribution of wealth. Inevitably, having an “agenda of government” involves the state choosing winners and losers. It calls for government officials to decide what each of us should have based on their subjective sense of fairness. The animating feature of a government agenda is not individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the assumption that all assets are essentially corporate, and that we are obliged to share them as government decrees, a windfall for those favored by the ruling class.
There are two competing visions on the political right: government as a form versus government with an agenda. In the pledge, this plays out as the preamble versus the nuts and bolts — the authors’ five-point plan. It is individual liberty versus the welfare state. And for all the Republicans’ talk, talk, talk about the preamble, the inescapable message of the pledge is that the debate is over — and the welfare state has won.
The energy and the logic on the right wants Big Government dismantled. Very simply, it has been tried for almost 80 years, it does not work, it cannot work — not if you accept that there is a human nature and that it will always assert itself. Therefore, the welfare state needs to be dismantled. Reaching that conclusion doesn’t make us heartless. We believe in the goodness of the country. We believe responsible people will tend to their own needs, and that those who can’t or won’t provide for themselves are more likely to be empowered by private guidance and charity than by a government that turns them into permanent dependents — and gouges the rest of us while so doing.
Consequently, we don’t want to be told how you’re going to make Big Government work better. We want to know how you’re going to reduce government to a neutral guarantor of liberty. We want to know how you are going to strip the federal Leviathan down to its few enumerated powers and ensure that the remaining powers “are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” That last quote is also from the pledge’s inspiring preamble and, naturally, is not the work of the authors but of the Constitution’s framers — specifically, the Tenth Amendment. Alas, when you flip the page and get to the pledge’s guts (or lack thereof), you don’t get the Tenth Amendment. You get Big Government Lite.
DEBT, WHAT DEBT?
FDR’s world on Barack Obama’s steroids — with no small help from the GOP’s drunken-sailor spree through the “compassionate” Bush years — has put us well over an unimaginable $100 trillion in the hole. Interesting thing about unimaginable numbers: They’re easy not to imagine, and the pledge doesn’t even try.
Instead, Republicans resort to the unique Washington math that pegs the debt at about $13 trillion, or roughly one-tenth of its real size. They then bravely promise — with respect to the unfunded, unsustainable entitlements that make up most of the remaining nine-tenths — to require “a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.” That may settle the burning question of whether the true catastrophe is merely $106 trillion or, as National Review’s Kevin Williamson more realistically puts it, $130 trillion. But it won’t do a damn thing about it. Nor will promises to “set benchmarks for these programs and review them regularly, and prevent the expansion of unfunded liabilities.” The expansion? They want a medal for promising — without explaining how — to guard against the expansion of something that is a galaxy beyond intolerable as is?
There are only three ways to deal with entitlements: default on promised benefits, turn the currency into Monopoly money, or figure out a way to pay them honestly, no doubt by tax levies that dwarf today’s rising tab. That is cruel reality, and it will saddle not only the young people currently paying into the system who won’t see a dime, but their children and grandchildren who for generations will be left holding the bag for the Baby Boom’s utopia. No one in his right mind, understanding these consequences, would ever adopt such a Ponzi scheme in the first place. So, since we understand the consequences in a way the nation did not in the 1930s, how can we in good conscience continue it?
Yet that is exactly what the pledge does. For all the preamble pizzazz about freedom and responsibility, when it gets down to brass tacks, the GOP has no brass: It assumes Americans are junkies hooked on entitlement smack, incapable of going cold turkey and insensitive to the fact that we’ve run out of other people’s money. Republicans obliquely promise to “make the decisions necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.” Feel better now?
And sounding like good Democrats, the pledge’s authors demagogically denounce the other side for Obamacare’s “massive Medicare cuts,” pining that these will “fall squarely on the backs of seniors.” One needn’t overlook the disaster that is Obamacare in order to see that such reckless rhetoric will be a noose around the neck of any grown-up who actually undertakes to scrap Medicare — which currently has no money but about $75 trillion in unfunded liabilities (i.e., over five times the “cumulative national debt” of $13 trillion that the pledge elsewhere indicates is intolerable).
UNINTENTIONALLY VINDICATING OBAMACARE
Speaking of Obamacare, the Republicans promise to repeal it. That’s great — except they can’t leave well enough alone. They further commit to “replace it” with what turns out to be their own version of government-regulated health care. To be sure, they envision a less intrusive system that leans on free-market reforms and the curbing of litigation abuse. But it also sows the seeds of its own undoing and, perversely, of Obamacare’s legal vindication.
The pledge duly attacks Obamacare’s most obnoxious feature, the individual mandate that would require Americans, as a condition of living in this country, to purchase health insurance. It is unconstitutional, the GOP declares. This leads to one of the more vapid features of the pledge: the commitment to force Congress to include in each law it enacts an explanation of the law’s constitutionality. But the pledge does not stake out any constitutional philosophy. It does not claim, for example, that Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the Supreme Court’s New Deal watershed that dramatically expanded Congress’s Commerce Clause power to regulate intrastate affairs, was wrongly decided. The pledge would merely require a certification of constitutionality — as if progressive judicial interpretations of the Constitution (such as Wickard) were not readily available to justify any usurpation the feds care to dream up.
Worse, though, the pledge proposes its own irrational (but populist) health-care mandates: “We will make it illegal for an insurance company to deny coverage to someone on the basis of a pre-existing condition, eliminate annual and lifetime spending caps, and prevent insurers from dropping your coverage just because you get sick.” As the Red State blogger Hogan pointedly asks, how is coercing a private insurer to cover people any better than coercing a private person to buy coverage? The constitutionality clause the Republicans write for that one ought to be interesting. Furthermore, as Hogan adds, sick people can’t pay for health insurance — if insurers are mandated to cover them outside the terms of their policies, it will be necessary to force healthy people to pay the freight. That is, we’d be in cruise-control toward an individual mandate anyway.
Far from addressing entitlements and getting the government out of the health-care business, the pledge would leave the welfare state largely intact, content — once you flip past the preamble — to “rein in” but not stop the government’s growth. How? By vowing to roll out-of-control federal spending all the way back to . . . the out-of-control levels of 2008.
You may recall that as the year the government ran what was then thought an obscene $400 billion deficit — the sort of staggering number for which the GOP became notorious during the Bush years, resulting in the routs Republicans suffered in the 2006 and 2008 elections. And mind you, the announced $400 billion deficit for 2008 was legerdemain: The Bush administration declined to put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s hundreds of billions in liabilities on its books when it took over the failed mortgage giants.
We can take comfort in the roll-back to a previously unacceptable 2008 baseline, the pledge tells us, because this time the GOP will impose “strict budget caps to limit federal spending on an annual basis” — over time, we will inch our house into order. But why should anyone believe that? It was only six months ago that Sen. Jim Bunning invoked a similar spending-discipline gimmick — the “pay as you go” rule — in attempting to force the government to find the relative chump change ($10 billion) in spending cuts needed to pay for the umpty-umpth extension of federal unemployment benefits.
Republicans refused to rally around Bunning, just as they have caved on the issue with each successive extension since. In short, they were afraid of being portrayed as heartless. There is a sound, logical case that extending unemployment payments exacerbates the unemployment rate — then and now hovering near 10 percent. This meant nothing to Republicans. Petrified of the mainstream media and utterly lacking confidence that they could make the case to the public that 99 weeks of benefits was enough, they joined Democrats in painting Bunning as a radical and holding that not a penny of the mind-blowing $3.6 trillion budget could be spared.
They’re still petrified. The pledge is living proof. It is manifest in the GOP’s fear of grappling with the viability of the welfare state, it is clear in the party’s abdication on debt and the third-rail of entitlements, and it even permeates the pledge’s meanderings on national security, a putative Republican strength. After years of complaint that nuke-building, terror-supporting, America-hating Iran cannot be quelled by negotiations and sanctions, the best the pledge can do is vow to “aggressively and effectively implement the sanctions.” Declaring Iran an enemy and working for regime change is not mentioned — after all, the media would call Republicans warmongers, and Republicans don’t see themselves capable of explaining that such a policy would not necessarily require an invasion.
When the pledge talks tough, it backfires. The GOP inveighs that it “will hold President Obama and his administration responsible” if detainees released from Guantanamo Bay return to the jihad. But it was the Bush administration that released most of the Gitmo prisoners, many of whom returned to the fight while Republicans still controlled Congress — yet the GOP put up negligible resistance while the Left pressured President Bush to free still more. Further, while it’s nice to hear Republicans promise to fight the extension of Miranda rights to terrorists held overseas, they make no promise to repeal the McCain Amendment. That’s the law that endowed foreign jihadists with Fifth Amendment protections. It was enacted by the Republican Congress in 2005. Many in the GOP knew it was a terrible idea, but they were scared of being libeled as proponents of “torture,” so they defied Bush and joined the Democrats in overwhelming numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. The country will be much better off if Republicans are elected in November. Many of them are very solid conservatives. Among these, Rep. Paul Ryan has made Herculean efforts to wrestle with entitlements and bring spending into line with revenues, not the other way around — although, alas, the Republican establishment has kept its distance despite the fact that Ryan, too, seeks to preserve the welfare state (albeit in reduced form), not pronounce it futile.
If such GOP leaders assume control of Congress, much of the damage wrought by Obama’s leftist transformation might be undone. And, as Charles Krauthammer points out, the energy on the Right, the tea-party movement, seems to have found a home — at least for the time being — in the GOP, rather than going the Ross Perot route. In light of the regularity with which the tea party has clobbered the Republican establishment’s chosen candidates in primary season, there is reason to hope the movement will put some much needed steel in the GOP spine, along with some much needed small-government principles.
But count me more frustrated than inspired by the Republicans’ Pledge to America. Unquestionably, as Kevin Williamson argues, enacting elements of the pledge would be a tremendous accomplishment, bending the “agenda of government” on a salutary, rightward course, however temporarily. But none of the pledge’s agenda items is actually going to be enacted. Even if we are fortunate enough to see Republicans elected in numbers large enough to take one or both chambers, pledge initiatives will be bottled up by congressional Democrats or vetoed by President Obama. The pledge should not be about success in the here and now. It should be about a vision for the future. It should tee up 2012 and the difference between the America the president sees and the America Republicans see.
The latter is supposed to be the America of the Founders. For my money, the pledge should have stopped at the preamble.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.