The liberal elite's rhetoric takes an authoritarian turn.
By JAMES TARANTO
The Best of the Web Today
The Wall Street Journal Online
July 27, 2011
Yesterday we noted that President Obama had mused about how much better it would be if he could rule unconstrained by constitutional checks and balances. "Some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own," Obama told the National Council of La Raza Monday. He paused while the crowd chanted, "Yes, you can! Yes, you can!" and then said, "Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting."
This is the sort of thing that feeds wacky right-wing conspiracy theories. This columnist is not a conspiracy theorist, and we hasten to note that the president told the crowd Monday that no, he can't: "That's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written."
But he was unquestionably right that "some people" want him to "bypass Congress"--to impose his will in a dictatorial fashion. These calls are coming not from the fringes but from the "mainstream" left--from people who would be considered entirely respectable in the newsroom of the New York Times.
A Times news story the other day raised the idea (which we discussed July 8) that the president could instruct the Treasury to borrow money without congressional authorization on the basis of the 14th Amendment's provision that "the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned." The news story notes that Obama has rejected the idea (albeit "not in categorical terms"). Well he should, for it is absurd on its face to suggest that a provision guaranteeing the payment of debts "authorized by law" would permit the incurring of more debts without legal authorization.
The shocking thing in this Times story, though, is this quote from Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, on what would happen if Obama did assert this authority: "At the point at which the economy is melting down, who cares what the Supreme Court is going to say?" Balkin told the Times. "It's the president's duty to save the republic."
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson expressly endorses the idea: "It seems to me that definitive action--unilateral, if necessary--to prevent the nation from suffering obvious, imminent, grievous harm is one of the duties any president must perform":
Who knows how the courts--ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court--would react? With outrage? With deference toward presidential power? With traditional reluctance to intervene in political disputes between the two elected branches of government? It would matter, eventually. But while legal briefs were being prepared and arguments honed, Obama would have raised the debt ceiling on his own authority--and the crisis would have been averted.
As some left-liberals urge Obama to grab power now and worry about the Constitution later, others seek to delegitimize congressional Republicans--duly elected representatives of the American people--by describing them as enemies of the state.
"Wake up to the national security threat," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof exhorted his readers on Sunday. "Only it's not coming from abroad, but from our own domestic extremists," whom Kristof compares to "Iran and al Qaeda." Kristof's colleague Thomas Friedman echoes Kristof today, writing: "If sane Republicans do not stand up to this Hezbollah faction in their midst, the Tea Party will take the G.O.P. on a suicide mission." (As an aside, remember earlier this year when the Times fretfully lectured us about the urgency of promoting "civility" for about six weeks?)
Similar comparisons come from academia. Here's Geoffrey Stone, a law professor from the University of Chicago, writing at the Puffington Host:
By threatening to wreak havoc with the national interest, [Republicans in Congress] are attempting to terrorize rather than persuade the nation into doing what they want. . . .
Of course, the President could temporarily avert disaster by giving in to the terrorists. . . . Those Republicans who are pursuing this course may be honoring their pledge not to raise taxes, but they are also dishonoring the very spirit of their oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
In a Times op-ed today, David Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, likens congressmen to bull elephants who have become "temporarily 'crazy' " because they are in musth (sexual arousal, which the Times spells "must"):
Huge bulls, oozing a weird, foul-smelling, greenish glop from glands near their eyes, behave with violent abandon, taking risks and defying the basic rules of pachyderm propriety (and also giving rise to the term "rogue elephant"). . . .
It's fair to conclude that Mr. Obama is facing the political equivalent of an elephant in must--a player who simply won't play the game.
In the 1983 movie "WarGames," an errant military supercomputer has a final moment of lucidity in which it notes, "The only winning move is not to play." The president is best advised to do the same: declare that the other side has foregone all pretense at rational legitimacy, and simply proceed to govern as best he can for the good of the country.
Barash goes much further than to say that the president is right and the Republicans wrong on the merits of the policies at issue. He goes much further even than to accuse GOP congressmen of employing a dangerous tactic in threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. (The president, it should be noted, is using this tactic as well when he threatens to veto ceiling-raising legislation that does not suit his policy and political priorities.)
No, Barash is describing those of whose politics he disapproves as less than human--as wild animals who must be controlled. Using that ugly metaphor, he calls for a dictatorial power grab by President Obama, which he describes in the benign terms of governing "as best he can for the good of the country."
It reminds us of our Friday column, in which we poked fun at a liberal writer for calling the president "practically a caricature of Spock-like rationality and sober caution." Obama's emotional Friday press conference gave the lie to that description. But all this talk of benign, rational dictatorship calls to mind a scene from "Patterns of Force," a "Star Trek" episode from 1968, in which the Enterprise visits a planet ruled by a former history professor from Earth, John Gill, who has modeled its society after Nazi Germany:
Kirk: Gill. Gill, why did you abandon your mission? Why did you interfere with this culture?
Gill: Planet fragmented. Divided. Took lesson from Earth history.
Kirk: But why Nazi Germany? You studied history. You knew what the Nazis were.
Gill: Most efficient state Earth ever knew.
Spock: Quite true, Captain. That tiny [sic] country, beaten, bankrupt, defeated, rose in a few years to stand only one step away from global domination.
Kirk: But it was brutal, perverted, had to be destroyed at a terrible cost. Why that example?
Spock: Perhaps Gill felt that such a state, run benignly, could accomplish its efficiency without sadism.
"Believe me," said the Vulcan in chief on Monday, "the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting." Again, Obama was quick to acknowledge that this was only a fantasy. But as we have seen, such fantasies are chillingly common among the liberal elite.
Our constitutional system of checks and balances is frustrating at times, and it is not without dangers. But we owe a hearty thanks to Balkin, Robinson, Kristof, Friedman, Stone and Barash for putting their own ugly impulses on display and reminding us of how much more danger the country would be in without the Constitution to restrain our would-be rulers.