Following Founders' wisdom could curb politics' rough justice

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Thomas A. Firey Nov 16, 2016

The moment that propelled Donald Trump’s victory last Tuesday wasn’t when he won Pennsylvania or Ohio or some other Rust Belt state. It wasn’t 11 days earlier when FBI director James Comey informed congressional leaders that his agency was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. It wasn’t last spring when Trump won the Republican nomination by crushing the GOP field, or even in June of 2015 when he announced his candidacy.

It was late on Christmas Eve in 2009, when Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid secured his chamber’s passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after a series of questionable political and procedural maneuvers. Democratic politicians and their echo-chamber commentariat cheered the accomplishment, having previously boasted and demanded that Obamacare be “ramrodded” through Congress. But the majority of Americans didn’t celebrate; from then to now, its opponents have regularly outnumbered its supporters by 10 percentage points.[1]

Since then, Democratic candidates have paid a hefty price at the ballot box. The party lost control of both houses of Congress, along with the majority of state legislatures and governorships. Now they’ve lost the White House. Last Tuesday, a staggering 83 percent of voters who thought the health care law “went too far” voted for Trump.[2]

Obamacare isn’t the sole reason for the Democratic losses and Trump’s victory, of course. But it exemplifies American politics in the 21st century. From lying—“If you like your health care plan, you can keep it”[3]—to circumventing people’s representatives in Congress—“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,”[4] to ignoring the already-weak War Powers Act—“kinetic military action”[5]—tens of millions of Americans believe political leadership in Washington—both Democrats and Republicans—have run roughshod over their will.

Exit polls show that only a portion of Trump voters think he either cares about them or has good judgment. [6] But they see him as someone who will radically change how Washington politics operate, and they’re tired of those politics running over them. So now Trump wields the pen and phone.

Many disappointed Clinton supporters will reject this explanation. They say Trump won because America is a misogynistic, racist, ignorant country. Exit polls give the lie to this. Trump won 42 percent of women’s votes and 29 percent of the Latino and Asian votes, as well as 45 percent of college-educated voters. Those are smaller percentages than Clinton won in those categories (54, 65, 65, and 49, respectively), but it’s doubtful that two in five women are misogynists or three in 10 Latinos and Asians are white supremacists. The “misogynist, racist, ignorant” explanation may boost Clinton supporters’ aggrieved psyches, but it doesn’t fit reality.

Politics delivers a rough justice. The group that holds political power one day is subjugated to it the next. And oftentimes, the group that abuses that power later gets abused by it. Clinton and Barack Obama’s supporters lauded their use of the pen and the phone when they were in power; now Donald Trump’s supporters and their uneasy Republican allies can ramrod legislation and issue expansive executive orders.

The Founding Fathers tried to prevent this. Having lived under monarchical rule from a foreign land, and uneasy that their then-already-diverse young nation could be abused by a political faction, they worked to limit government power. They divided it horizontally across legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and vertically across the national, state and local governments. They further limited it with explicit protections of rights both defined and implied. The post-Civil War Congress added to this with the 14th Amendment.

But just a few decades after that Amendment, the progressive movement began a war against those constraints. They argued that such institutions as free speech rights, separation of powers and divided government impeded “progress.” In the last 15 years, neoconservatives have joined in that cause. And so, in 2016, we had two major-party candidates each vow that if elected they would crack down on First Amendment rights that could challenge their power.

With Clintonites now shockingly deprived of their pen and phone, and with Trumpers still smarting from Obamacare’s ramrodding, it’s time to recall and reembrace the wisdom of the Founders. Political winds will shift and blow, and shift and blow again. Instead of sowing it, let’s get out of the wind.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.

[1] “Public Approval of Health Care Law.” Accessed Nov. 11, 2016.

[2] “Exit Polls.” Accessed Nov. 11, 2016.

[3] Angie Drobnik Holan. “Lie of the Year: If You Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep, Dec. 12, 2013.

[4] Jared A. Favole. “Obama: I’ve Got a Pen and I’ve Got a Phone.Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2014.

[5] Jonathan Allen. “‘Kinetic Military Action’ or ‘War’?”, March 24, 2011.

[6] New York Times. “Election 2016: Exit Polls.” Accessed Nov. 11, 2016.