Tea Party at the cross­roads

Con­ser­va­tives can learn from their fail­ure to de­fund Oba­macare

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Thomas Sow­ell

Third par­ties have had an un­bro­ken record of fail­ure in Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. So it was re­fresh­ing to see in the Tea Party an in­sur­gent move­ment, mainly of peo­ple who were not pro­fes­sional politi­cians, but who nev­er­the­less had the good sense to see that their only chance of get­ting their ideals en­acted into pub­lic poli­cies was within one of the two ma­jor par­ties.

More im­por­tant, the Tea Party was an in­sur­gent move­ment that was not try­ing to im­pose some un­tried Utopia, but to re­store the lost her­itage of Amer­ica that had been eroded, un­der­mined or just plain sold out by pro­fes­sional politi­cians.

What the Tea Party was at­tempt­ing was con­ser­va­tive, but it was also in­sur­gent — if not rad­i­cal — in the sense of op­pos­ing the root as­sump­tions be­hind the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal trends of our times. Since those trends have in­cluded the ero­sion, if not the dis­man­tling, of the con­sti­tu­tional safe­guards of Amer­i­can free­dom, what the Tea Party was at­tempt­ing was long over­due.

Oba­macare epit­o­mized those trends, since its fun­da­men­tal premise was that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had the right to or­der in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans to buy what the gov­ern­ment wanted them to buy, whether they wanted to or not, based on the as­sump­tion that Wash­ing­ton elites know what is good for us bet­ter than we know our­selves.

The Tea Party’s prin­ci­ples were clear, but its tac­tics can only be judged by the con­se­quences.

Since the Tea Party sees it­self as the con­ser­va­tive wing of the Repub­li­can Party, its sup­port­ers might want to con­sider what was said by an iconic con­ser­va­tive fig­ure of the past, Ed­mund Burke: “Pre­serv­ing my prin­ci­ples un­shaken, I re­serve my ac­tiv­ity for ra­tional en­deav­ors.”

Fun­da­men­tally, “ra­tional” means the abil­ity to make a ra­tio — that is, to weigh one thing against another. Burke makes a key dis­tinc­tion be­tween be­liev­ing in a prin­ci­ple and weigh­ing the likely con­se­quences of tak­ing a par­tic­u­lar ac­tion to ad­vance that prin­ci­ple.

There is no ques­tion that the prin­ci­ples of any­one who be­lieves in the free­dom of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens from ar­bi­trary gov­ern­ment dic­tates like Oba­macare — unau­tho­rized by any­thing in the Con­sti­tu­tion and for­bid­den by the 10th Amend­ment — must op­pose this quan­tum leap for­ward in the ex­pan­sion of the power of gov­ern­ment.

There is noth­ing am­bigu­ous about the prin­ci­ple. The only ques­tion is about the tac­tics, the Tea Party’s at­tempt to de­fund Oba­macare. The

prin­ci­ple would jus­tify re­peal­ing Oba­macare. So the only rea­son for the Tea Par­ty­ers’ lim­it­ing them­selves to try­ing to de­fund this year was a recog­ni­tion that re­peal­ing it was not within their power.

The only ques­tion then is: Was de­fund­ing Oba­macare within their power? Most peo­ple out­side the Tea Party rec­og­nized that de­fund­ing Oba­macare was also be­yond their power — and events con­firmed that.

It was vir­tu­ally in­con­ceiv­able from the out­set that the Tea Party could force the Democrats who con­trolled the Se­nate to pass the de­fund­ing bill, even if the Tea Party had the com­plete sup­port of all Repub­li­can se­na­tors — much less pass it with a ma­jor­ity large enough to over­ride Pres­i­dent Obama’s cer­tain veto. vThere­fore, was the Tea Party-led at­tempt to de­fund Oba­macare some­thing that met Burke’s stan­dard of a “ra­tional en­deavor”?

With the chances of mak­ing a dent in Oba­macare by try­ing to de­fund it be­ing vir­tu­ally zero, and the Repub­li­can Party’s chances of gain­ing power in ei­ther the 2014 or 2016 elec­tions be­ing re­duced by the pub­lic’s back­lash against that fu­tile at­tempt, there was vir­tu­ally noth­ing to gain po­lit­i­cally and much to lose. How­ever dif­fi­cult it might be to re­peal Oba­macare af­ter it gets up and run­ning, the odds against re­peal, af­ter the 2014 and 2016 elec­tions, are cer­tainly no worse than the odds against de­fund­ing it in 2013. Win­ning those elec­tions would im­prove the odds.

If the Tea Party made a tac­ti­cal mis­take, that is not nec­es­sar­ily fatal in pol­i­tics. Peo­ple can even learn from their mis­takes — but only if they ad­mit to them­selves that they were mis­taken. Whether the Tea Party can do that may de­ter­mine not only its fate, but the fate of an Amer­ica that still needs the prin­ci­ples that brought Tea Party mem­bers to­gether in the first place. Thomas Sow­ell is a se­nior fel­low with the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Univer­sity.

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