Prudence can end Obama's 'soft despotism'

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama stops at Great Eastern restaurant in the Chinatown section of San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 16, 2012.

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  • James Madison's #Constitution prevents winners of election from directing public policy course @MichaelBarone

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  • For the impatient Republicans: they have a worthy goal @MichaelBarone

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  • House Republicans need to exercise prudence & not give in to passion that could defeat their purpose @MichaelBarone

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Many Republican House members and the bloggers and Tea Partiers who cheered their victory in gaining a majority in November 2010 seem to be seething with discontent and eager for confrontation.

They believe, reasonably, that that victory represented a repudiation of the vast expansion of government by the Obama Democrats. They want to see those policies reversed, and pronto. And if the dilatory Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the all-campaign-no-governance President Obama want a confrontation, so much the better.

"Neither can succeed in the framework the Framers gave us -- not until another election." -- Michael Barone

Such impatience is unbecoming in those who call themselves "constitutional conservatives." It is James Madison's Constitution that prevents the winners of one election from directing the course of public policy as unilaterally as, to take one example, the British Labor Party marched Britain into a socialist welfare state on the basis of one election victory in 1945.

We have a House of Representatives 100 percent of whose members were elected in a historic Republican year, a president elected in a historic Democratic year, and a Senate two-thirds of whose members were elected in historic Democratic years and one-third in a historic Republican year.

It should not be surprising that they cannot agree on policy. Most of the high-minded folk who decry "gridlock" would like the Republican House to say uncle. The Republicans bemoaning their leaders' lack of boldness imagine that if they force confrontation they can somehow prevail.

Neither can succeed in the framework the Framers gave us -- not until another election.

The Republicans who seek changes in policy need to exercise prudence in framing issues in order to gain a favorable verdict from voters in the election coming up this fall.

Speaker John Boehner, who started off as a rebel himself, served as a leader when Newt Gingrich sometimes adroitly, sometimes maladroitly, moved policy in a Republican direction, is as well positioned as anyone could be to make judgments on when prudence should override principle.

But say this for the impatient Republicans: They have a worthy goal.

They want to turn back the Obama Democrats' advance into what Alexis de Tocqueville, the author (according to Harvard's Harvey Mansfield) of "the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America," characterized as soft despotism.

Tocqueville, after describing in "Democracy in America" how Americans avoided the perils of equality by forming voluntary associations, engaging in local government, and believing in religions that disciplined their pursuit of self-interest into a pursuit of virtue, painted the picture of a darker future.

Above a democratic populace, he writes, "an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, rigid, far-seeing and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, if had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that."

Thus Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, foresees Obamacare and the crony capitalism that produces a Super Bowl commercial from a government- and union-controlled company that seeks Obama's re-election.

It is worth quoting more from a political thinker as far elevated above almost any other as Mozart was above almost all other composers.

"Thus, taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrial animals of which the government is the shepherd."

That is what House Republicans are fighting to reverse. With their presidential candidates at odds, with mainstream media disparaging them at every turn, they need to exercise prudence and not give in to passion that could defeat their purpose.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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