Shock & Awe

When a liberal defends liberalism

Conservatives are not accustomed to being on the defensive. They have long experience with attacking the evils of the left and the abuses of activist judges. They love to assail "tax-and-spend liberals" without ever discussing who should be taxed or what government money is actually spent on. They expect their progressive opponents to be wimpy and apologetic. 

So imagine the shock when President Barack Obama decided last week to speak plainly about what a Supreme Court decision throwing out the health-care law would mean, and then landed straight shots against the Mitt Romney-supported Paul Ryan budget as a "Trojan Horse," "an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country," and "thinly veiled social Darwinism."

Obama specifically listed the programs the Ryan-Romney budget would cut back, including student loans, medical and scientific research grants, Head Start, feeding programs for the poor, and possibly even the weather service. 

Romney pronounced himself appalled, accusing Obama of having "railed against arguments no one is making" and "criticized policies no one is proposing." Yet Romney could neither defend the cuts nor deny the president's list of particulars, based as they were on reasonable assumptions. When it came to the Ryan budget, Romney wanted to fuzz things up. But, as Obama likes to point out, math is math.

And when Obama went after the right's willingness to use the power of the Supreme Court for ideological purposes, conservatives were aghast -- and never mind that conservatives have been castigating activist judges since at least the 1968 presidential campaign. 

Thus did a headline on a National Review article by John Fund read: "Obama makes Berkeley liberals look like statesmen." My, my. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger argued that it appeared to be "unprecedented" for a U.S. president to have "attacked the Supreme Court before it handed down its decision." 

Perhaps conservative pundits couldn't stand the fact that Obama called them out explicitly. "I'd just remind conservative commentators," he said, "that for years what we've heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint -- that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example." Yes, it is.

Now it's true that after Obama spoke, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney placed some limits on the president's claim that knocking down the Affordable Care Act would be "an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress." Carney explained that Obama was "referring to the fact that it would be unprecedented in the modern era of the Supreme Court, since the New Deal era, for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation" on a "matter of national economic importance."

And that is precisely the point. What's lost in our discussions of judicial activism is that in the period from the Gilded Age after the Civil War to the middle of the New Deal, it was conservative Supreme Court majorities that nullified progressive laws aimed at regulating the economy and expanding the rights of workers and consumers. The threat now is a return to pre-New Deal conservative judicial activism. 

In fact, Obama's statements are moderate compared with those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who unsuccessfully sought to add members to the court after it had voided one New Deal law after another. 

The Constitution, Roosevelt insisted, is "a layman's document, not a lawyer's contract." Its ambiguities had created "an unending struggle between those who would preserve this original broad concept of the Constitution" and those who "cry 'unconstitutional' at every effort to better the condition of our people."

The United States, FDR insisted, could not afford "to sacrifice each generation in turn while the law catches up with life." He spoke with a sense of urgency in the midst of the Great Depression. "The millions who are in want," he said, "will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach."

FDR lost the court-packing fight but won the larger battle over the right of the democratic branches of government to legislate on behalf of the common good.

Progressives would be wildly irresponsible if they sat by quietly while a conservative Supreme Court majority undid eighty years of jurisprudence. Roosevelt wasn't a wimp, and Obama has decided that he won't be one, either. Conservatives are unhappy because they prefer passive, intimidated liberals to the fighting kind. 

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group


Related: Tyranny? by the Editors

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

If the Supremes overturn AHC after giving us the a No Re-count and the ugly Citizens United I say they are partisan hacks who will have sacrificed their intitutions good name.... and for what???.. the GOP will lose in 2012-2016 and 2020 and the SC hacks will all be replaced  .

Now it's true that after Obama spoke, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney placed some limits on the president's claim that knocking down the Affordable Care Act would be "an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress." Carney explained that Obama was "referring to the fact that it would be unprecedented in the modern era of the Supreme Court, since the New Deal era, for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation" on a "matter of national economic importance."

--

Hmm.  Wonder what that means.  Well, so long as the President understands what he meant to say, it's probably OK.  Accidents happen.

 

Hmmm.  It may be largely rumor but I hear in the past there were a few fellows who did their sincere best to move a debate in a direction most likely to result in an outcome approaching the grand notions of their words.  Parts of the stories created based on these rumors suggest it was their unwillingness or inability to accept the fact perfection was not within their reach that played an understandable role in the slow progress made in reaching their goals.  And, of course, there's no compelling reason to believe  "Sunday morning quarterback" is either a new profession or has not always paid well. 

With my limited ability I struggle to understand why the word "government" is so often used with the assumption one is referring to an entity that all within hearing range agree is literally alien.   In this remarkable nation government is in fact us.  All of us. 

As for the formal institutions we created and to which we gave the enormous responsibility to institute our governemt it has three parts.  Another rumor suggest no small number of people have long believed in something almost magical in the number three.  The magic, however, relies upon the three parts functioning as one to meet the real world requirements of its grand words.

Share

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).