Do We Really Want to Fix Washington Politics?


By: Guest Authors

By J. Robert Smith

Barack Obama’s candidacy and rhetoric are laying the groundwork for a terrible crash. The crash will come when voters – many young, some older – discover that a President Obama can’t begin to deliver what he pledges: national harmony and contention-free politics. No President ever has, and no president ever will. Nor would we want it so; that is, if we value our freedom.

Cast your mind back. With his acceptance speech at Invesco Field, Senator Obama played a variation of his mantra: “Change We Can Believe In.” As was widely reported at the time, he chose to strike a specific theme: fixing the “broken politics of Washington.”

Curious notion, this, for Senator Obama isn’t offering to fix the government but the politics surrounding the government. Is it unfair to draw from the Senator’s remarks that the government is just fine; it’s just all those quarreling politicians, mostly Republican and on the right, who are interfering with the proper functioning of government?

Certainly, at one point in his speech, Senator Obama made a nod at eliminating government programs that don’t work, but as Karl Rove commented afterward on Fox News, it may be productive for Senator McCain to ask the Illinoisan – repeatedly, if need be – for examples of programs he’d eliminate. And it’s worth adding that Senator Obama should be asked for programs other than military, which is a perennial target for liberals.

And other questions for the Illinois senator. How, precisely, does he intend to fix Washington’s broken politics? Shall he move to censor speech and debate within the Halls of Congress? Shall he demand that the loyal opposition not oppose? Shall he insist that Congress vote only to acclaim legislation that he backs? Shall he eliminate the right to petition? What about constituents and interests? Shall they’re advocacy for or against legislation be proscribed? Shall they be discouraged altogether from approaching Congress with grievances or for favors?

If those questions ring with absurdity, they should. The fact is, Washington’s politics aren’t broken. Politics in Washington are happening about as they’ve always happened: with a fair degree of contention; with a clash of interests and worldviews; with dissent and maneuver aimed squarely at advancing or halting legislation. It’s been that way since the nation’s founding.

Upon sober reflection, do we want Congress to act hastily? Was it good that the groundswell of opposition to the first financial bailout bill caused it to fail in Congress? Whatever the demerits of the bill that just passed, wasn’t it, in some respects, a better bill for having been renegotiated and rewritten?

As a wag once said, politics is sausage-making. Everyone likes to eat sausage but no one really wants to watch how it’s made. With 24/7 news coverage, and analysis and opinion on radio and the internet, more than some Americans are turned off by the nitty-gritty of the process. That’s certainly understandable, but that process is a safeguard. However distasteful it might be at times, a clash of interests is a first line of defense against tyranny.

Every living American should be grateful for that fact. Any American who has read the Federalist Papers, or has a basic understanding of why the Constitution was designed as it is, appreciates that we human beings, imperfect creatures all, and with differences, cannot possibly attain the unity and bonhomie in politics that the Illinois senator promises to bring.

The national government is designed essentially to frustrate ambition, or, as Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” No one person, no one faction, should come to dominate the whole of government; if so, the freedoms and rights of all are imperiled.

The Founders recognized profoundly that a government of “checks and balances” was needed because human beings will contend for power, place, control, and resources. Politics are the process whereby competition is managed and resolved civilly. Politics are no zero-sum game; losers are permitted to regroup and try again to win. Society can no more do without politics than it can do without government.

Of course, it’s important to understand that the Founders created a limited government. They wanted the national government to have a specific role and mo more. They worked in some leeway for emergencies or extraordinary circumstances, but the rule was that the national government would not be allowed to cross certain lines.

In the twentieth century, with the progressives and New Dealers, those lines were breached. Government assumed roles and duties unimaginable to the Founders, and despite nearly a century of liberal rationalizations, that change in the national government would have met with the Founders hearty disapproval.

For conservatives who believe in limited government, who see the necessity of thwarting attempts by a President Obama or Congressional Democrats to expand government, the political process, in and out of government, becomes indispensible.

No one wants incivility in politics. We expect politicians to abide by the law and play by the rules. We hope that politicians, especially those in important jobs, listen well to the better angels of their nature. But there will always be contention, as there must be. Some issues rest on great principles, and contending greatly for those principles is not mean, but magnificent.

For instance, how would a President Obama fix Washington’s broken politics when it comes to abortion? Split the differences between pro-life and pro-choice Americans? Mandate a slightly lower number of abortions annually? Ask pro-lifers to accept some late term abortions? How can two sides, with profound differences, compromise? Sure, they can dialogue and debate – that’s healthy. There may be some common ground when it comes to parental notification, for example. But the unborn are human beings or they aren’t. For pro-lifers, public policy needs to protect the unborn. To do so means fighting for laws that defend those lives. That means engaging in politics, or entering the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, however unpleasant or messy the conflict.

The truth is that Senator Obama’s idea of fixing Washington politics is to defeat his opponent, John McCain, and increase Democratic majorities in Congress. It’s about having a freer run at enacting liberal legislation aimed at growing government. He wishes to marginalize the opposition, not build bridges to it.

And it’s about squelching dissent. If anyone really wants a clue to what fixing Washington really means to Democrats, one need only consider their loud and oft-repeated calls for re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine. Can Washington really be fixed if conservative voices, like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, dominate the airwaves? Might not regulation of speech on the internet be next? Don’t put it past Democratic politicians, vexed by conservative bloggers, to eventually make disingenuous arguments for controlling that medium, too.

Some may counter that Senator Obama’s words are hyperbole, standard issue for presidential candidates. They’re to be taken at face value: nice intentions designed to uplift and motivate voters. Whether or not the Senator actually believes his own words is open to debate. But there are millions of voters who fervently believe him, who want to believe that all the disagreeable aspects in the very human pursuit of politics can be erased. Wanting it and eloquent words, they suppose, will make it so.

If there is a President Obama, voters will find with each passing day that the nation has been sold a bill of goods. Human nature is hardwired. Didn’t we learn that with a vengeance in the twentieth century? Neither ideologies nor war nor pogroms nor gulags nor eugenics nor anything else designed to destroy the Old Man and create a new one trumped hundreds of thousands of years of evolved human nature.

We are what we are. Politics is a reflection of us. It is a process of government. Keep the process honest and fair. But be wary of Barack Obama and others who claim they’ll make great fixes to the system. The claims are specious, and if they’re not, beware what those fixes will do to liberty.

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