After healthcare ruling, conservatives again misplace their ire
Last week’s ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional has thrown conservatives into consternation. Rick Santorum says he is “very disappointed … It was a folly of a mistake.” Conservative radio host Michael Savage suggests Roberts must be on mind-altering medication. Even those, like John Boehner, who said they respected his jurisprudence disagreed with his decision.
Roberts now finds himself in the same bad standing with conservatives as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bernanke’s credentials as the heir to Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan’s monetarist guru, have not been enough to save him from abuse either. When good conservatives like Roberts and Bernanke are traduced by their own side for being closet liberals, letting Barack Obama introduce European social democracy through the back door, something strange is afoot in the conservative universe.
The definition of a conservative used to be someone who values institutions above all as the bulwark against tyranny. That is the lesson left by the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke. But America’s most valued institutions, and those who operate them, are under attack from the very people who at one time would have been their stoutest defenders. People who like to call themselves conservatives, and set themselves up as arbiters of who is a true conservative, now despise the very institutions that safeguard our fragile freedoms from tyranny.
It’s hard to find a “conservative” today who has anything good to say about the Office of the President. The current head of state and chief executive, chosen fairly by the American people, suffers a daily barrage of personal attacks by those who question everything about him: his name, his nationality, his religion. His integrity is impugned as if he were a common criminal. Not long ago true conservatives would think such vicious attacks upon any president tantamount to treason.
The same people have little time for members of Congress, whom they accuse of venality and theft. Once it was the guiding principle of votes taken in either chamber that a simple majority was majority enough, a clear reflection of the wishes of the majority of Americans. No more. Now, to frustrate the operation of the federal government, votes in the Senate routinely need a two-thirds majority, and the system of representative democracy that has served the nation since the Founding Fathers is dismissed as “the tyranny of the majority.”
The Federal Reserve was until recently considered an apolitical body charged with maintaining the value of the currency. It was off-limits to partisan assaults, and its impartial head automatically served one president after the next. Thus Paul Volcker, appointed by Jimmy Carter, continued to serve Carter’s nemesis, Ronald Reagan. Yet in the Republican primaries, each of the final six candidates promised to fire Bernanke, even though Bernanke, by no stretch a liberal, is a distinguished monetarist chosen by a Republican president.
The Supreme Court was not a target of the soi-disant conservatives so long as its built-in conservative majority, with four liberals and four conservatives and a deciding vote held by Chief Justice Roberts, nixed liberal laws. But now that Roberts has gone offtrack, deeming that the penalties levied on those who do not take out private health insurance amount to a federal tax and thereby ruling the Affordable Care Act constitutional, his character has been besmirched and his sanity called into question.
When conservatives denounce all three branches of government and the impartial Federal Reserve as unfit to carry out their proper functions, it is worth asking whether conservatism itself needs to be redefined. Moderate Republicans who think themselves conservatives and independent voters who tilt toward conservatism must look at the antics of libertarians posing as conservatives and wonder whether the sort of reasonable conservatism they prefer is on offer this November.
Before he set out on his current quest for the presidency, Mitt Romney was hardly a revolutionary. As governor of Massachusetts he embraced a conservative healthcare program that is to all intents and purposes the Affordable Care Act, complete with an individual mandate. But to secure the Republican ticket he has been obliged to trim his own middle-ground beliefs and embrace a far more radical creed.
When mainline conservatives like Roberts, Bernanke and Romney are treated with suspicion and contempt by the rank and file of the Republican party, and heaped with abuse by conservative commentators, the political pendulum has plainly swung way too far in one direction. Yet the conservatives’ response to the Roberts verdict is to double down. Like John McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, they are taking a reckless gamble. For the GOP to stand any chance of electoral success it would do well to tack back fast toward the middle ground where elections are won and lost.