"When the chief justice read me the oath," President Franklin D. Roosevelt said to a speechwriter, "and came to the words 'support the Constitution of the United States,' I felt like saying: 'Yes, but it's the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy -- not the kind of Constitution your court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.'"
FDR's statement vividly illustrates the Big Divide between (most) Republicans and Democrats, free marketers and collectivists, Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman. It's the line separating those who believe in the power of individuals from those who believe in the power of government -- so long as they're the ones in power. It's the line that separates those who believe in the welfare state from those who not only believe that the federal government recklessly spends more than it takes in, but also spends it on things not permitted by the Constitution -- and the country is worse off for having done so.
This is the tea party message (to the consternation of Democrats and squishy Republicans): The Constitution means what it says and says what it means. All this Constitution talk produces the inevitable backlash. Joy Behar, the learned Constitutional scholar, asked, "Do you think this Constitution-loving is getting out of hand?"
A Los Angeles Times columnist and I sat on a panel to analyze President Barack Obama's last State of the Union speech. What, I asked, gives the President authority to place health care under the command and control of the federal government? She replied, that part of the Constitution that says to provide for the domestic tranquility.
She refers to a part of the preamble to the Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility ... establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Many members of this "living, breathing" Constitution school claim authority for things like ObamaCare resides in the "promote the general welfare" part of the preamble. Using the "domestic tranquility" part was a first.
The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, anticipated the preamble-gives-government-permission-to-do-all-sorts-of-things-for-which-it-lacks-authority argument. In 1794, Congress appropriated money for charitable purposes. An incensed Madison said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."
Time Magazine's recent Constitution cover story asks: "Does It Still Matter?" Its answer? Well, yeah, it sort of does, but then again, you know, not so much. After all, the Founding Fathers could neither foresee computers nor Twitter nor predict that Rep. Anthony Weiner would use both to implode his career. So, really, in the modern day, what's the relevance of the old document crafted by well-to-do, slave-owning white males?
As the federal government got bigger over the next 200 years, and assumed responsibilities the Founding Fathers considered the job of individuals, families and communities -- or of the separate states -- Madison's position withered. It's now fighting for its life.
Soon, the 50 percent of voters who pay little or no taxes will march into the polling booth, many pulling levers, pushing buttons and punching chads to vote themselves a raise -- at somebody's else's expense. If the Supreme Court permits the ObamaCare mandate, anything goes.
Constitution-shredders point not to our bloated federal government, the entitlement mentality or to the desire of politicians on both sides to promise things that the Founders feared would eventually produce an electorate with little or no financial skin in the game. No, the real villain is the dastardly Bush tax cuts! If only they had not been enacted, they tell us!
Why not blame the tax cuts signed by other presidents? President John Kennedy's plan reduced the top marginal income tax rate from 91 percent to 70 percent. President Ronald Reagan reduced the top marginal tax rate from 70 to 28 percent. President George W. Bush, by contrast, reduced the top rate from 39.6 to 35 percent, making him Scrooge-like in comparison.
The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" says the two Bush tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003, "cost" $2.8 trillion over 10 years (an average of $280 billion per year). In the last two and a half years alone, Obama has presided over the addition of almost $4 trillion in new debt, and this year's deficit is an estimated $1.6 trillion.
Besides, liberals like the Bush tax cuts -- at least for the lower 98 percent of workers. Since most Democrats want to preserve the Bush-era tax rates for all but the top 2 percent, the objectionable "cost" of the cuts becomes even more inconsequential to dealing with budget, deficit and debt problems.
So now what? We drifted away from the Constitution in fits and starts. It is how we must return to it. Voters must remember who talked the talk and walked the walk. This is a time when we change course, when people rediscover American exceptionalism and the wisdom of the Constitution and say, "Enough."
If not, Greece awaits.