Colorado lost a liberal happy warrior last month when long time lawmaker and activist leader Ken Gordon died suddenly. President Obama could learn a thing or two about sincerity and decent politics from Ken. That thought struck me after the president’s recent “pivot” to income inequality reminded me of a friendly debate Ken and I had 15 years ago, about which, more later.
The idea the president is pivoting to inequality is too rich. Redistribution is the organizing principle of his presidency. Taking from the Americans he calls “the haves,” the “fat cats” and giving to those he calls “the poor” and “have nots” has been his constant goal. It’s his guiding star, raison de etre, his highest priority.
He declared his intentions plainly when he told Joe the Plumber we’ll all be better off if he can spread the wealth around. He designed his health law, auto bailout, Gulf spill clean up--every major initiative of his presidency--with the intent to force money from wealthier people and institutions to less wealthy ones. His drop dead requirement in last year’s fiscal cliff negotiations was imposing higher taxes on “the wealthiest Americans” If he hasn’t been out there trying to redistribute his way to a more equal America, what exactly has he been doing?
Pivot shmivot. He’s desperate to talk about something other than the debacle called Obamacare, so he brazenly announced “a new direction.” His media cheerleaders locked arms and did a high kick while relaying his nonsense.
It’s not working, by the way. Inequality is soaring on his watch. It’s going up because government managing the economy doesn’t work. It doesn’t lift the poor. It chokes the investment, startups, expansions, growth and opportunity the poor need to get jobs and climb the economic ladder.
Which brings me back to my friend, Ken Gordon and our debate over liberty and equality. I was a newly elected state representative and he was leader of the House Democrats. Speaking at an orientation for new legislators, Ken said something like this: “I tell my Democratic colleagues that they shouldn’t judge Republicans harshly, and I ask you Republicans the same courtesy. We all want good things for society: happy families, lots of jobs, safe streets, good schools, a clean environment. We just believe different things about how to get there.”
Turning philosophical, Ken added: “I think the difference between the parties is, for Republicans, the highest value is freedom, but for Democrats, the highest value is justice. Republicans will sacrifice some justice for freedom and Democrats will sacrifice some freedom for justice.”
The gesture at even-handedness didn’t sit quite right with me. I sought him out later and countered: “No, Ken, ‘justice’ is too precious to surrender to anyone. Both Republicans and Democrats want what they believe is justice. But to Republicans, the heart and soul, the biggest part of justice is freedom and to Democrats, the heart and soul, the biggest part of justice is equality.”
“ Republicans will pursue policies for more freedom at the expense of some equality. Democrats will pursue policies for more equality at the expense of some freedom.”
Ken graciously agreed there might be some merit in that modification, though not enough to change the way he saw and articulated the issue. We parted amicably that day. He was a pleasure to clash with for years thereafter. He helped bring about Colorado’s turn from Red to Blue, and he advanced from Minority Leader in the House to Majority Leader in the Senate. He was unique: a short, stout, bearded, balding, somewhat rumpled character. He always had a plan and a trick up his sleeve, and often a twinkly smile because he was pleased with himself about his schemes.
With Ken, you knew where you stood and what he was trying to accomplish. He honestly advocated liberal ideas and made direct, soft-spoken arguments for his positions. His sudden death was a shock in Colorado politics.
I’ve seen and learned a lot since that day and would phrase things differently today. Too often, Republicans lose sight of freedom in pursuit of contributions, votes, and power. They join in the project of growing government. Today, I would speak of conservatives, or defenders of liberty, rather than assigning love of freedom as a general Republican trait.
But the battle we are in is still the one Ken and I discussed. Some people want to use government power to try to engineer society into “fair” outcomes, more equal outcomes. One of them is the most powerful man on earth.
I wish the leader of the Free World (what an ironic label) were as honest about what he’d like to accomplish, what he wants to change about America, as Ken was about his goals for Colorado. Maybe that’s why Ken died missed and appreciated across the spectrum, while Obama is plumbing new depths of public disapproval.
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