Bonfire of the Sophisticates (Part 1)

 

Just a few days before Christmas, National Review’s Rich Lowry — easily one of my favorite writers — penned a sober analysis titled, “The Right’s Post-Constitutional Moment,” in which he laments that, “Trump has captivated a share of the Tea Party with a style of politics utterly alien to the Constitution.” This is especially vexing, Lowry continues, in light of a movement which in 2010 produced “… a class of constitutional obsessives, such as Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, who were focused not just on what government shouldn’t do, but on what it couldn’t do, and why.”

Interesting turn of phrase there, using the designation, “constitutional obsessives,” to describe people who took a solemn oath of constitutional fidelity. I suppose I could be described as “matrimonially obsessive,” since I took a solemn and sacred vow of fidelity to my wife, but the term seems a bit quirky somehow, underscoring the Republican view of these upstarts and the voters who sent them, as borderline fanatics. In any event, Lowry goes on to describe Donald Trump in terms that strike this observer as disconcertingly accurate:

Donald Trump exists in a plane where there isn’t a Congress or Constitution. There are no trade-offs or limits. There is only his will and his team of experts who will figure out how to do whatever he wants to do, no matter how seemingly impossible. The thought you can’t do that doesn’t ever occur to him.

Trump is a reaction to Obama’s weaknesses, but also to Obama’s exaggerated view of executive power … For some on the right, clearly the Constitution was an instrument rather than a principle. It was a means to stop Obama, and has been found lacking.

Here, I think, is where the analysis begins to derail, and so it is here that I respectfully tender the first proposition:

Through its serial Faustian deals with the radical left, combining a toxic blend of political ineptitude, tenacious timidity, and an endless capacity for moral equivocation, the Republican Party has compromised its soul, reducing conservatism itself to little more than an academic exercise — all but paralyzed physically, though of some residual intellectual comfort.

Back in 2010, well before Donald Trump stepped on the political stage, Republicans vowed that big changes were on the way if only we would support them. The GOP unveiled a plan that “puts forth a new government agenda that reflects the priorities of the American people — priorities that have been ignored, even mocked by the powers-that-be in Washington — and can be implemented today.” Page after page of promises were offered, promises based on constitutional principles, no less, from which I glean just a few:

To provide Stability, we will require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that has an annual cost to our economy of $100 million or more.

Cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels.

Cut Congress’ budget.

Hold weekly votes on spending cuts.

Establish a hard cap on new discretionary spending.

Impose a net federal hiring freeze of non-security employees.

Repeal the costly health care takeover of 2010.

We will fight efforts to fund the costly new health care law.

Permanently prohibit taxpayer funding of Abortion.

We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.

Advance legislative issues one at a time. We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people.

Keep terrorists out of America. We will prevent the government from importing terrorists onto American soil.

Require tough enforcement of sanctions against Iran.

Establish operational control of the border.

Conservatives generally — and Tea Partiers in particular — responded by installing Republicans in a historic majority in the House of Representatives. Expecting promised results, since the agenda was advertised as one that “can be implemented today,” conservatives watched in dismay as one opportunity after another to flex constitutional muscle was surrendered, always because the task was too daunting, and always with the stipulation that the good fight would be waged next time. Only next time never came.

Capitulation, like success itself, becomes a habit. In short order, those who promised to repeal and defund a perfectly awful health care law — and one that barely survived judicial scrutiny thanks to the linguistic gymnastics of a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court — look at us askance, incredulous that they should be held to their word. They only controlled one half of one branch, which was less than a full third of something or other. That they had neglected to mention all those caveats and conditions when asking us to give them the majority was somehow our fault, dontcha know? But even with majorities in both chambers, the results were the same.

Contrary to Mr. Lowry’s either/or proposition, the Constitution is both a principle and an instrument, designed to thwart the usurpation of its tenets. But we the people — who expected constitutional fidelity from those who promised as much — were derided as “purists,” constitutional troglodytes, too thick-headed to realize that principles are, in reality, mere expedients to be jettisoned as the cost of reaching across the aisle, and “getting something done.”

Yes, we are indeed in a post-constitutional era, but that process began long before Donald Trump’s first campaign event, over the vehement objections of some Tea Partiers who — having watched for several years as their representatives repeatedly and preemptively surrendered — have learned their lesson perhaps too well and decided to emulate the moderate’s emancipation from conservative orthodoxy, for the sake of getting something done, of course. In fact, they might even be forgiven if they answer the RINO’s belated and uncharacteristic concern for constitutional adherence with a wry smile and the single word, “purist.” Conservatism used to be made of sterner stuff before the apologists for Republican inaction and capitulation emasculated it. It’s adherents still make a coherent and persuasive philosophical case for it in these and other pages, but inaction has caused it to atrophy, and a weary and beaten citizenry are looking elsewhere for help.

It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage. One can argue over exactly when it was that the Right began making peace with extra-constitutional government, but when you fully fund an agenda you swore to oppose, and spend more time belittling those who voted for you than you spend keeping your word in the first place, you’re complicit in the results.

And it all happened before Donald Trump ever set foot on the political stage, which will bring me to the second proposition, in the next installment.

Part 2 of the Bonfire of the Sophisticates is here.


This post was originally published on Jan. 14, 2016.

There are 81 comments.

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  1. Member

    Is there any actual substance to Lowry’s word salad? Or is it just a salon level unreality think peice?

    Putting constitution into sentences apparently at random, as often as the left uses rayciss, doesn’t make it true.

    • #1
    • January 14, 2016 at 5:29 am
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  2. Member

    “One can argue over exactly when it was that the Right began making peace with extra-constitutional government, but when you fully fund an agenda you swore to oppose, and spend more time belittling those who voted for you than you spend keeping your word in the first place, you’re complicit in the results.”

    This observation is evidence that the average citizen, no offense meant Dave, is capable of understanding and directing the governance of this nation. It is also proof that congressional term limits need to be imposed, so we can keep a constant stream of non-politicians holding the reins, rather than the current ruling class.

    • #2
    • January 14, 2016 at 5:39 am
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  3. Member

    Here’s where we may part ways, Dave. You rightly diagnose the problem, but if your prescription to lack of fidelity to the constitution is a man who doesn’t even know it exists, then you’ve gone round the bend.

    You may be able to convincingly argue that none of the other candidates are the appropriate solution to our problems, and I’m very open to that line of reasoning, but there is no rational, constitutional argument for a strongman who takes the worst aspects of Obama’s presidency and promises to enlarge on them. The problems caused by a king are not solved by a better king but by no king. It’s kind of why we have the constitution in the first place.

    • #3
    • January 14, 2016 at 5:42 am
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  4. Member

    With Obama owning the veto and the media, there were only certain things they could do besides posture and they all had to do with funding and they couldn’t bring themselves to do any of it, except in an end of period posturing, pathetic capitulation. The thing is the principles they are abandoning except in rhetoric are more than just good, constitutional, proper, partisan, nice things to do. They have organic historical meaning. Read, Mancur Olsen’s “The Rise and Decline of Nations” This creeping centralization and expanding rent seeking is how great civilizations end, all of them. It also reflects what Hayek is getting at in the Road and the Fatal conceit. Conservatives happen to be right and Trump isn’t one of them.

    • #4
    • January 14, 2016 at 5:44 am
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  5. Contributor

    Dave Carter: Capitulation, like success itself, becomes a habit. In short order, those who promised to repeal and defund a perfectly awful health care law — and one that barely survived judicial scrutiny thanks to the linguistic gymnastics of a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court — look at us askance, incredulous that they should be held to their word. They only controlled one half of one branch, which was less than a full third of something or other. That they had neglected to mention all those caveats and conditions when asking us to give them the majority was somehow our fault, dontcha know? But even with majorities in both chambers, the results were the same.

    I largely agree with this and don’t think the last few years of Boehner/McConnell can be defended: they had enough power to do or at least attempt more and did not. And while I’m withholding final judgement for a while yet, Ryan’s omnibus doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement.

    That said, I think there’s a missing piece here, which was that the American people sent a very mixed signal to Washington between 2010 and 2012. President Obama’s re-election in 2012 killed the narrative that the people were serious about repealing ObamaCare and signaled that the 2010 shellacking was more about putting on the brakes than turning the car around.

    • #5
    • January 14, 2016 at 5:53 am
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  6. Member

    Amen, Mr. Carter, eloquently put.

    Mr. Meyer, I am not sure that it was the electorate that sent mixed signals. The electorate wanted Obamacare repealed, so the GOP nominated the one man in the party who couldn’t challenge the President on Obamacare. Every time Trump gains ground this year, the members of the GOP leadership should be forced to stand in front of a mirror repeating the phrase, “You caused this”.

    • #6
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:03 am
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  7. Inactive

    We have the devils we know and they are devils. We have a devil we are reasonably suspicious.

    All Republicans have to do to neutralize Donald Trump is express fealty to the Constitution, but Boehner, Ryan, and McConnell threw that in the ditch with the omnibus spending and $700B in extra debt 90 days.

    • #7
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:04 am
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  8. Member

    Dave Carter: It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage.

    Amen, brother!

    • #8
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:05 am
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  9. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    The King Prawn:Here’s where we may part ways, Dave. You rightly diagnose the problem, but if your prescription to lack of fidelity to the constitution is a man who doesn’t even know it exists, then you’ve gone round the bend.

    You may be able to convincingly argue that none of the other candidates are the appropriate solution to our problems, and I’m very open to that line of reasoning, but there is no rational, constitutional argument for a strongman who takes the worst aspects of Obama’s presidency and promises to enlarge on them. The problems caused by a king are not solved by a better king but by no king. It’s kind of why we have the constitution in the first place.

    Actually, TKP, you and I are largely in agreement. This is not, by the way, an endorsement of Trump. Rather it is, as you note, a diagnosis along with a correction to the idea that extra-constitutionalism is a recent phenomenon on the right. What is new, and novel, is the fact that those on the right who were most pliable and helpful with President Obama’s extra-constitutional agenda have only recently found some measure of constitutional rectitude. But this is only Part 1, after all.

    • #9
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:10 am
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  10. Member

    Arahant:

    Dave Carter: It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage.

    Amen, brother!

    Again, diagnosis correct, but what is the prescription?

    • #10
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:10 am
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  11. Member

    Dave Carter:

    Actually, TKP, you and I are largely in agreement. This is not, by the way, an endorsement of Trump. Rather it is, as you note, a diagnosis along with a correction to the idea that extra-constitutionalism is a recent phenomenon on the right. What is new, and novel, is the fact that those on the right who were most pliable and helpful with President Obama’s extra-constitutional agenda have only recently found some measure of constitutional rectitude. But this is only Part 1, after all.

    I don’t know if I can go as far as you do in thinking Congressional leadership were enablers. Sure, there was more they could have done, but was that more the better course of action? We’ll never really know because they didn’t try. I think they most likely chose what they believed to be the least worst path among the available options.

    And you’re right. Extra-constitutionalism has a long and rich history in our constitutional republic.

    • #11
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:16 am
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  12. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Dave Carter: Capitulation, like success itself, becomes a habit. In short order, those who promised to repeal and defund a perfectly awful health care law — and one that barely survived judicial scrutiny thanks to the linguistic gymnastics of a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court — look at us askance, incredulous that they should be held to their word. They only controlled one half of one branch, which was less than a full third of something or other. That they had neglected to mention all those caveats and conditions when asking us to give them the majority was somehow our fault, dontcha know? But even with majorities in both chambers, the results were the same.

    I largely agree with this and don’t think the last few years of Boehner/McConnell can be defended: they had enough power to do or at least attempt more and did not. And while I’m withholding final judgement for a while yet, Ryan’s omnibus doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement.

    That said, I think there’s a missing piece here, which was that the American people sent a very mixed signal to Washington between 2010 and 2012. President Obama’s re-election in 2012 killed the narrative that the people were serious about repealing ObamaCare and signaled that the 2010 shellacking was more about putting on the brakes than turning the car around.

    Very good point, and one I’ve been puzzling over for some time. On the one hand, the Obamaphone crowd turned out in force, while (I’m given to understand) a part of the conservative electorate sat things out. If so, that would explain the strong conservative showing, yet again, in 2014, no? Regardless, as you note, Republicans simply could not be bothered to even reach for the brake pedal, leaving us with a large chunk of the populace that is simply exasperated.

    • #12
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:18 am
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  13. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    The King Prawn:

    Arahant:

    Dave Carter: It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage.

    Amen, brother!

    Again, diagnosis correct, but what is the prescription?

    If I had to make an endorsement right now, among the available options, it would be Cruz. But there is more that needs to be done, which is why I’m also a supporter for the Article V Convention of States movement. I note, also, that Thomas Sowell is on board with the idea.

    • #13
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:25 am
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  14. Member

    Dave Carter: Regardless, as you note, Republicans simply could not be bothered to even reach for the brake pedal, leaving us with a large chunk of the populace that is simply exasperated.

    I think a lot of that chunk are not particularly conservative or even republican. Rather, they are voters getting democracy good and hard. We also must choose the least worst option. As I’ve seen quipped, picking who to vote for is like selecting the venereal disease that’s right for you.

    • #14
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:26 am
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  15. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    The King Prawn:

    Dave Carter:

    Actually, TKP, you and I are largely in agreement. This is not, by the way, an endorsement of Trump. Rather it is, as you note, a diagnosis along with a correction to the idea that extra-constitutionalism is a recent phenomenon on the right. What is new, and novel, is the fact that those on the right who were most pliable and helpful with President Obama’s extra-constitutional agenda have only recently found some measure of constitutional rectitude. But this is only Part 1, after all.

    I don’t know if I can go as far as you do in thinking Congressional leadership were enablers. Sure, there was more they could have done, but was that more the better course of action? [emphasis mine] We’ll never really know because they didn’t try. I think they most likely chose what they believed to be the least worst path among the available options.

    And you’re right. Extra-constitutionalism has a long and rich history in our constitutional republic.

    These are ostensibly bright guys, so if a given course of action was inadvisable, they shouldn’t have promised to pursue it.

    • #15
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:28 am
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  16. Member

    Dave Carter:

    The King Prawn:

    Arahant:

    Dave Carter: It wasn’t the Constitution that was found lacking. It was Republicans who lacked the courage that the Constitution’s Framers expected from the representatives of a people whose very liberty was born of courage.

    Amen, brother!

    Again, diagnosis correct, but what is the prescription?

    If I had to make an endorsement right now, among the available options, it would be Cruz. But there is more that needs to be done, which is why I’m also a supporter for the Article V Convention of States movement. I note, also, that Thomas Sowell is on board with the idea.

    I think we’re to that point. It can’t get any worse for it, not that any new writing in the Constitution will stop a government oblivious to the words already there.

    • #16
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:29 am
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  17. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    The King Prawn:

    Dave Carter: Regardless, as you note, Republicans simply could not be bothered to even reach for the brake pedal, leaving us with a large chunk of the populace that is simply exasperated.

    I think a lot of that chunk are not particularly conservative or even republican. Rather, they are voters getting democracy good and hard. We also must choose the least worst option. As I’ve seen quipped, picking who to vote for is like selecting the venereal disease that’s right for you.

    That quote should be etched in stone and put on a monument someplace in Washington DC.

    • #17
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:29 am
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  18. Inactive

    David Knights:Amen, Mr. Carter, eloquently put.

    Mr. Meyer, I am not sure that it was the electorate that sent mixed signals. The electorate wanted Obamacare repealed, so the GOP nominated the one man in the party who couldn’t challenge the President on Obamacare. Every time Trump gains ground this year, the members of the GOP leadership should be forced to stand in front of a mirror repeating the phrase, “You caused this”.

    But wasn’t the GOP of whom you speak the electorate who voted in primaries?

    • #18
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:31 am
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  19. Member

    Loved the article Dave Carter. Looking forward to Part II.

    “Constitutional Obsessive” like your fine analogy to “matrimonial obsessive” is a good thing and a compliment. Would that there were more of such creatures in the GOP House and Senate. From the article:

    One can argue over exactly when it was that the Right began making peace with extra-constitutional government, but when you fully fund an agenda you swore to oppose, and spend more time belittling those who voted for you than you spend keeping your word in the first place, you’re complicit in the results.

    Powerful words. And truth.

    • #19
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:43 am
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  20. Member

    Here is my fear for a Article V convention in anology form:

    America is a Ford GT40 that needs the heads cleaned and the rings replaced in its V-8. Once the engine is out and broken down, someone suggests that a fuel cell power plant would be better for the environment. In the spirit of optimistic innovation, Porsche wins Lemans evermore.

    • #20
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:48 am
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  21. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author

    Paul Dougherty:Here is my fear for a Article V convention in anology form:

    America is a Ford GT40 that needs the heads cleaned and the rings replaced in its V-8. Once the engine is out and broken down, someone suggests that a fuel cell power plant would be better for the environment. In the spirit of optimistic innovation, Porsche wins Lemans evermore.

    But the engine won’t be pulled out in its entirety,….though I’m clumsy with mechanical analogies. Remember though, two thirds of the states must sign on to convention (and the amendments to be debated) and a full three fourths of the states must ratify the amendments afterward. Those are not small hurdles. Besides, just pulling the lever for the guy or gal with an “R” next to their name hasn’t exactly done the trick thus far.

    • #21
    • January 14, 2016 at 6:54 am
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  22. Member

    Your last two paragraphs say it all. To say we are in a post-Constitutional world is like saying the Bible is outdated – some things transcend time, trends, revolts, revolutions, and prove it by standing the test of time.

    What has become outdated, are our two political parties. Conservative Democrats no longer recognize their party. When I jumped ship from my lifelong Democrat side in 2000, I felt comfortable in the Republican party, but the Republican party has not kept up with the fast-changing world either.

    I attended two local women’s Republican meetings early this year. The first I was turned away because I did not register ahead – I had just read about the meeting – I could have been a Code Pink infiltrate so I understand, although I have a voter ID card. Second time, the packed dining hall at local restaurant was the same as other meeting, consisting of dressed to the hilt, grey haired women – all white. The speaker was good, but no one made any effort to speak to me or get my info – I had to do the talking and introductions. I cannot imagine them inviting Trump to speak.

    Trump is the dumping of the tea candidate because he reflects the current picture – not yesterday’s Republican. His sell out crowds are different colors, ages, income levels. This should reflect the new conservative party, and it is why he resonates – Republicans better take notice – lest more damage is done to our beloved Constitution.

    • #22
    • January 14, 2016 at 7:00 am
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  23. Inactive

    We must go to the election with the candidates we have.

    We need to win, but more importantly, we need to install a president who is conservative and especially who understands and cares about the Constitution’s intentions for limited federal power. I agree with Rich Lowry that Trump is the antithesis of such a man.

    There are a couple of candidates remaining who, while nowhere near perfect, are good enough to bring the country back from the brink.

    • #23
    • January 14, 2016 at 7:01 am
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  24. Listener

    Dave Carter:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    That said, I think there’s a missing piece here, which was that the American people sent a very mixed signal to Washington between 2010 and 2012. President Obama’s re-election in 2012 killed the narrative that the people were serious about repealing ObamaCare and signaled that the 2010 shellacking was more about putting on the brakes than turning the car around.

    Very good point, and one I’ve been puzzling over for some time. On the one hand, the Obamaphone crowd turned out in force, while (I’m given to understand) a part of the conservative electorate sat things out. If so, that would explain the strong conservative showing, yet again, in 2014, no? Regardless, as you note, Republicans simply could not be bothered to even reach for the brake pedal, leaving us with a large chunk of the populace that is simply exasperated.

    I believe the “conservative electorate sat things out” story is wrong. Here’s a summary of the evidence. The missing voters appear to be Perot voters that W wooed back into the GOP.

    This phenomenon is one reason why I don’t discount Trump’s chances vs. Hillary: he’ll bring in those disaffected by Romney while not losing all that many conservatives. I’d vote for him over Elena Ceausescu, Part Deux.

    • #24
    • January 14, 2016 at 7:04 am
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  25. Member

    MWtheA: “good enough to bring the country back from the brink.”

    That would be good enough for me. Here’s hoping it’s good enough for most of us. But I jumped in just in case anyone missed King Prawn’s perfect encapsulation:

    “The problems caused by a king are not solved by a better king but by no king. It’s kind of why we have the constitution in the first place.”

    • #25
    • January 14, 2016 at 7:10 am
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  26. Contributor

    I think trying to make a stand on constitutional principles is not going to work with the electorate. I am more and more convinced that they don’t know about the constitution, aren’t interested in learning about the constitution, why it was written and how it should be applied today. Unless constitutional principles can be connected to their day-to-day lives, it will seem dull and irrelevant to them. And I don’t know how we do that.

    • #26
    • January 14, 2016 at 7:20 am
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  27. Thatcher

    Columbo:Loved the article Dave Carter. Looking forward to Part II.

    “Constitutional Obsessive” like your fine analogy to “matrimonial obsessive” is a good thing and a compliment. Would that there were more of such creatures in the GOP House and Senate. From the article:

    One can argue over exactly when it was that the Right began making peace with extra-constitutional government, but when you fully fund an agenda you swore to oppose, and spend more time belittling those who voted for you than you spend keeping your word in the first place, you’re complicit in the results.

    Powerful words. And truth.

    You have to start any follow up comments in a thread with “One more thing…”

    • #27
    • January 14, 2016 at 8:18 am
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  28. Member

    I don’t think Lowry meant it as a slight, but “obsessives” was indeed a poor choice of words.

    • #28
    • January 14, 2016 at 8:19 am
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  29. Thatcher

    Susan Quinn:I think trying to make a stand on constitutional principles is not going to work with the electorate. I am more and more convinced that they don’t know about the constitution, aren’t interested in learning about the constitution, why it was written and how it should be applied today. Unless constitutional principles can be connected to their day-to-day lives, it will seem dull and irrelevant to them. And I don’t know how we do that.

    Yep. We don’t teach it to them.

    Why, people think Medicare and Social Security are in the Constitution.

    I think it would be clever for the GOP to introduce amendments to codify these popular programs. It would make for great national discussion.

    • #29
    • January 14, 2016 at 8:23 am
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  30. Inactive

    One of the many things this group of candidates forget and Mitt Romney forgot is that a Republican Presidential candidate seeking credibility with the limited government Tea Party types is they must run as hard against the Republican Congress and the largess of the GW Bush era as they are running against Democrats.

    • #30
    • January 14, 2016 at 8:25 am
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