The Corner

Politics & Policy

Matt Gaetz’s Constitution

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) delivers an opening statement in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Today is Constitution Day, as Yuval Levin has noted in the Corner: 233 years since the Constitution’s authors signed the document (though it still had to be ratified). On the homepage, Levin has a typically astute and clear analysis of how well our polity adheres to the Constitution and to the political architecture it established. The short answer is . . . not very well. As he puts it:

Simply put, we now tend to treat the Constitution as exclusively the business of lawyers and judges, and to think that what’s at stake in our constitutional disputes is ultimately policy — what our government can do about various public problems. This is at best a badly inadequate understanding, and it leaves us with a blinkered constitutionalism that will not serve us well.

As per usual, his entire analysis is worth reading. But one part sticks out to me as particularly relevant. Drawing on a line of thought also present in A Time to Build, his book published earlier this year, Levin argues that, in recent years, too many of our constitutional officers — meaning members of Congress, the president, etc. — have viewed their roles not in terms of how the Constitution designed them, but as platforms for-self promotion. As he puts it:

Too often nowadays, they fail to play their proper parts because they fail to think in these kinds of institutional terms. They don’t understand their jobs in the context of the distinct forms and functions our system assigns them, but in terms of the roles they play in the culture-war theater of our politics, where the goal is not legislative bargaining or executive action or judicial review but performative outrage for a partisan audience.

One such individual is Florida congressman Matt Gaetz — by his own admission. In a profile by Vanity Fair, Gaetz was fairly straightforward about his vanity, and his misconception of his job. Consider some excerpts from the profile. First:

Gaetz, like Trump, sees politics as entertainment: if you can keep the people’s attention, you can keep your power. Or, as he puts it, “Stagecraft is statecraft.”

Next:

As society’s attention span abbreviates, Gaetz is angling to expand his 15 minutes. “I grew up in the house Jim Carrey lived in in The Truman Show,” he writes. “I know that all the world’s a stage, especially when we all have cameras with phones.”

Finally: 

“Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once knocked me for going on TV too much, without considering that maybe his own failures as a leader stemmed from spending too much time in think tanks instead of in the green rooms where guests wait to appear on TV, and are thereby connected to the dinnertime of real Americans,” he writes [in a forthcoming book]. “I take his recent elevation to the board of News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, to be his very silent apology. It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel. Why raise money to advertise on the news channels when I can make the news? And if you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.”

That last bit bears repeating: “And if you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” It is true — though less meaningful than Gaetz believes — that, in a media-saturated society, just about everything will be reported on. And there is even a reasonable case that an essential aspect of being a politician today is a degree of media savvy. (Would that it were not so.) But Gaetz clearly, and with the slick confidence of someone who believes he has things ‘figured out,’ believes that to elevate himself by chasing headlines and TV cameras is more important than doing his job in the way Levin describes. 

Gaetz is far from the only politician who thinks this; he says in the profile that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the House from New York, is “more proficient” at this mode of ‘governing’ than he is. (He means this as a compliment.) And for all his faults, Gaetz maintains morsels of possible political integrity, such as in breaking with the president earlier this year on a measure restraining his war powers, a defensible assertion of congressional power against the executive. But his words here, and his conduct elsewhere, mostly suggest at best a counterexample for how a member of Congress ought to view the job.

Something to keep in mind this Constitution Day. 

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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