A couple of weeks ago, President Obama gave a speech in Maryland, mocking Republican apoplexy surrounding the Affordable Care Act. He quoted one state lawmaker in New Hampshire comparing the law to the Fugitive Slave Act, causing the audience to audibly gasp.
It was an understandable reaction. What kind of person thinks of the Fugitive Slave Act when discussing a moderate health care law? What's that, George Will? You have something to contribute to this?
Conservative columnist and pundit George Will on Wednesday compared Obamacare to the Fugitive Slave Act and segregation to demonstrate the "bruising, untidy, utterly Democratic" process of changing laws.
In an interview with NPR's "Morning Edition," host Steve Inskeep asked Will about President Barack Obama's argument that Republicans are short-circuiting the system by using government funding and the debt ceiling as leverage to dismantle Obamacare, rather than repealing the law outright.
"How does this short-circuit the system?" Will said. "I hear Democrats say, 'The Affordable Care Act is the law,' as though we're supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them."
Now I realize, looking at the quote, that the conservative pundit didn't say the Affordable Care Act and the Fugitive Slave Act are literally moral equivalents, but Will is nevertheless drawing a needlessly provocative parallel. Indeed, if health care for working families causes someone to immediately think of slavery and segregation, there's a problem with this brand of political punditry.
But on a more direct level, Will seems to think the Affordable Care Act's proponents consider it and all laws inviolate and untouchable. He's confused. What matters is not whether Republicans want to change or destroy the law, but how they intend to go about completing their task.
It amazes me that conservatives are so often baffled by this.
Will contends that "lots of things are the law and then we change them." That's certainly true, though there's an obvious follow-up question: by what process should they be changed?
In the United States, we've spent about a quarter of a millennium relying on something called the legislative process -- lawmakers have an idea, they introduce a bill, it goes through committee, it's subjected to debate, etc. It's a long, difficult process, filled with many choke points, and the vast majority of bills fail.
What Republicans want to do now is bypass the legislative process and rely on extortion -- skip the committees and the debates, and insist that your rivals embrace your idea or you'll start hurting people on purpose. This has no place in the American tradition, and as a conservative, George Will should probably find the practice repulsive.
If opponents of "Obamacare" want to repeal, defund, delay, or augment the law, they can introduce a bill and try to see it through. "But with Democrats running the Senate and the White House, our bill won't become law," Republicans say. They're right, though I believe political scientists have a term for this: it's called a "bummer."
When your bill can't pass because elected policymakers don't like it, you either have to persuade your rivals or wait for new ones. Taking hostages may be a shortcut, but it's also a form of political violence that undermines the American system.
Will even has the audacity to talk about Madison.
And then there's Will's assertion that what we're seeing with the government shutdown and the attendant gridlock over Obamacare is the "Madisonian scheme," the idea that government is "hard to move, it's supposed to be. People look at Washington and say 'oh, this is so difficult.' It's supposed to be difficult."
Perhaps Will might benefit from re-reading the Federalist Papers. The system is intended to be difficult, it is not intended for a radicalized minority in one chamber to threaten deliberate harm until the winners of an election pay a ransom by embracing the policy goals of the election's losers.
The Federalist Papers are in the public domain; Will has no excuse for referencing them without having read them.