By Byron York
James Madison was not specifically contemplating Barack Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, when he wrote Federalist No. 63. But reading the document – one of the seminal arguments in favor of adopting the U.S. Constitution – it’s clear Madison knew their type. And he knew they would come along again and again in American history, if Americans were lucky enough to have a long history.
Obama and Pelosi, along with their most ardent supporters, are the types to see a crisis, like our current economic mess, as a “great opportunity,” as the president put it last Saturday. They are the types, after a long period out of power, to attempt to use that “great opportunity” to push through far-reaching changes in national policy that had only a tangential connection, if at all, to the crisis at hand. And they are the types the Founding Fathers wanted to stop.
In the Federalist Papers, written 221 years ago, Madison addressed the need for a Senate to accompany the more populist House of Representatives. An upper body, he wrote, “may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”
For the times when a political leader would attempt to capitalize on those errors and delusions, the Founders prescribed the Senate, with its members elected to terms three times the length of those in the House, originally chosen not by the people but by the state legislatures. From Federalist 63:
“There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
Now is the time for the salutary interference of temperate and respectable citizens, otherwise known as the 41 Republicans in the United States Senate. It is their job to help the president in areas where there is widespread agreement that he should be helped, and hold the line on everything else.
Of course the economy is in crisis. But if Obama had his way, everything would be treated as if it were a crisis. Health care is a crisis. The environment is a crisis. Education is a crisis. In truth, those other areas are not crises, and the Senate’s job is to delay action on them until Obama’s power to stir popular passions fades. Then, whatever legislation is truly needed on health care, etc., can be undertaken in a more reasoned and measured way.
Five years ago, in the 2004 presidential race, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg did some research on behalf of candidate John Kerry. Greenberg wanted Kerry to be more bold in advocating wholesale change, so he convened a series of focus groups to test the public’s reaction to a number of aggressive policy proposals.
Greenberg found that voters would accept boldness on an issue or two, provided they were really important. But when a candidate promised bold action across the board, the people balked. “While voters are clearly open to bold initiatives to major problems, they may be less attracted to the candidate who wants to act boldly in every area, without exception,” Greenberg concluded. “All together, that may have suggested an expanding scope for government beyond what people felt they could trust.”
In our current situation, the people elected Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress. They didn’t elect them to do nothing. When action is needed to deal with the economic crisis – it would be nice to have a financial stabilization plan, Mr. President – they will support it.
But they didn’t elect Obama to change everything, either. With Pelosi eager to go along with the president’s every wish, it’s up to temperate and respectable citizens to distinguish the crisis from the non-crisis, and act accordingly.
In other words, it’s up to the Senate to slow things down. Just like Madison planned.