In a vivid example of the pot calling the kettle black, California Democrat Henry Waxman said he would resign at the end of this year because of the “extremism of the Tea Party Republicans.” There are few in Congress whose actions have been more extreme than Mr. Waxman’s.
He was a principal architect of the Affordable Care Act, which was designed to hand over 16% of the American economy to the government. He wrote what the New York Times termed a “sprawling bill to combat climate change.” The bill passed the House in 2009 but died in the Democrat-controlled Senate. He promoted cap and trade, which would have imposed more federal controls. He spent years trying to strengthen the powers of the FDA and the EPA and is credited with laying the foundations for many of the executive actions which Mr. Obama in his State of the Union pledged to pursue. And Waxman calls his opponents extremists!
Democrats control the conversation. Whether because of ineptness, an inability to clearly articulate positions, or a media bias, Republicans have ceded the defining of several adjectives. One of the more glaring examples is “activist,” when used to describe a conservative justice who would have the Court hew to the original intent of the Constitution. “Originalist” would better define these justices, as they abide by the words in that document and the meaning they had at the time they were written. They are the antithesis of activists. There are, of course, those who feel that the Constitution is a “living” document that should adapt to a changing world. Both positions reflect honestly held opinions, but which is the activist?
To a progressive, an “extremist” is anyone who disagrees with their positions. The Koch brothers argue against the concept of an expanding central government; so they contribute to PACs that support limited government. They are labeled “extremists,” while those who want to expand government and curtail individual rights are labeled “progressives.” Political supporters of the president used the IRS as a truncheon to punish the Kochs and others. So, who is the extremist?
The most offending word in this collection of mis-used adjectives is “liberal.” What was liberal about a president who suppressed antiwar movements by imposing an Espionage Act and a Sedition Act, as did Woodrow Wilson, in 1917 and 1918 respectively? What was liberal about a president who sent American citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps, as did President Roosevelt in 1942? Yet progressives consider them the liberal icons of the 20thCentury. In contrast, President Reagan, who brought freedom to millions of people in Eastern Europe, is considered by progressives a reactionary. Which man was truly liberal?
The claim on the left, following the State of the Union, was that Mr. Obama expressed modest expectations, and Republicans should allow him his way. It fits with their preferred view – that Mr. Obama is a “moderate president in an immoderate time,” to borrow a phrase from Ezra Klein. The word “moderate” stems from the Latin “moderatus,” which means restrained. It would be hard to argue that Mr. Obama was restrained when he assured his audience that he had a “pen and a phone,” and would act should Congress not. Mr. Obama promised in 2008 to hold back the seas. With majorities in both Chambers, he pushed through ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank, a 2000-page bill that hampered lending and failed to address the causes of the crisis. He engineered an $800 billion stimulus bill that sent money to federal and state union workers, rather than infrastructure projects, and he decided to bail out union employees at GM and Chrysler while punishing creditors in contradiction to contract law. This was not the work of a moderate.
Forgotten by too many on both the left and the right is that Congress was conceived to be inefficient. In contrast to other governments, in particular England’s Parliamentary system, the founders designed a two-part legislative branch, each of roughly equal power, and a separate office of president. Unlike a parliamentary system, our executive is not part of the legislative branch. The purpose was to make the passage of laws difficult, to create gridlock if you will. There is, of course, a fine line between being deliberate and contentious. Republicans may have crossed that line from time to time, but such transgressions would not be unique to Republicans.
Historically, presidents have been at times frustrated with the encumbrances imposed on them by Constitutional restraint. As Commanders in Chief, presidents have suspended basic rights, but typically that was done in time of war. Mr. Obama is doing so while declaring he is taking us off a “war-footing.” In my opinion, where Mr. Obama has been most immoderate has been in his attempt – largely successfully – to divide us between the “1% and the 99%.” Good leaders unite people; they reserve their enmity for enemies. We have enough of the latter, which is where we should focus our energies. We should not create rancor where none needs to exist.
We are a heterogeneous people. We are divided by income, wealth and social position. We issue from disparate creeds, races and nationalities. We live in distinct and various geographic sections of the country – in cities and farms, among rolling hills and on the plains, on southern bayous and on northern mountains. From colonial days, we have been a polyglot nation. Our differences are expressed in myriad opinions on a host of issues. Yet, we have in common (or should have) a commitment to the culture and ideals embedded in our founding documents. A moderate president would seek to emphasize our self-interests. He, or she, should work to improve communications across all divisions – not divide us.
A moderate president would encourage policies that help expand a shrinking middle class. Mr. Obama talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. He has been president for five years, the same length of time the economy has been in recovery. Yet the number of Americans who consider themselves “middleclass,” according to a recent Pew Research poll, has shrunk from 53% in 2008 to 44%. The percent of the public, according to the same poll, who say they are in the lower or lower-middle classes, has risen from 25% to 40%. Data from the Census Bureau is consistent with that from Pew Research. Median household income is 8% below where it was in 2007. Median income in 2012 was at the same level as it was in 1995. Current policies are not working.
The vituperative language, emanating particularly from those on the left, serves to heighten the division that separates us. When the president speaks condescendingly about his political opponents, it does nothing to improve the dialogue. What is true, but which gets lost in the accusations and in the arrogance of the president’s words, is that both parties have pretty much the same goal – an economy that lifts more people out of poverty and a country that provides opportunity for all. There is legitimate disagreement on the means to best achieve those goals. But that is the purpose of a Congress – to debate differences and enact laws that satisfy the majority. It was never meant to be easy. Accusations of extremism detract from civil discourse that reflects honestly held differences of opinion.