The Ezra Klein Constitution Moment

In case you haven’t seen this one, here’s Washington Post reporter/left-wing Journolist pundit Ezra Klein explaining why the 112th Congress preparing to at least pay lip service to the Constitution as the source of legislative power is a gimmick…

There’s more after the jump.

Klein is rightly being pilloried for his statement, which at the end of the day isn’t all that different from the critique our own John Robert Butler offers in his post earlier today. Unlike John Robert’s take, though, in which he offers suspicion that seeking guidance from the Constitution is more a sop to the Tea Party than an indication of a sea change in how the House will operate, it’s Klein’s dismissive attitude toward the new House Rules package and its bowing to the Founding Fathers which is sparking the reaction.

The fact is, for Klein and others of his ideological ilk, the Constitution is an antiquated, preening piece of 18th-century political pornography inadequate to the needs of modern life. It’s easy, then, to dismiss it as “vague” and its pronouncements unclear. For the first 125 years or so of America’s existence under the Constitution it wasn’t difficult to understand what the Founders were saying in structuring the nation’s government; it’s only since then that the interpretation of the document has become difficult.

What created the problem? Well, let’s take a look at the progenitor of the American Left and what he thought about the Constitution. From a Claremont Institute summary of the writings of Woodrow Wilson on the subject…

More than anyone, Woodrow Wilson advanced the new Progressive theory of human nature and human institutions and the corresponding Progressive critique of the principles of the American Founding and the Founders’ Constitution. Wilson, who was president of Princeton and of the American Political Science Association before becoming President of the United States, was the first Chief Executive to openly criticize the Constitution, once comparing it to “political witchcraft.” So hostile was he to the self evident truths of the Founding that in a 1911 address he remarked, “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.”

Wilson above all others deserves credit for the notion that the Constitution is a “living” or “evolving” document. As he wrote in 1908, “Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin.” Insisting that the Constitution does not contain any theories or principles, Wilson argued that the Constitution has a “natural evolution” and is “one thing in one age, another in another.” “Living political constitutions,” he wrote, “must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.”

In other words, Wilson thought the Constitution was crap. Those who followed him, in particular the Democrats’ risen Lord Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gleefully trashed it and created the modern federal welfare state in direct contravention to the stated admonitions of the Founders.

So for Klein to say the Constitution is vague and unclear is as self-serving as it is smugly dishonest. It’s a fundamental difference between conservatives, particularly those of the Tea Party variety who are animating the movement in its current resurgence, and the Left that conservatives recognize the Constitution as essential to what makes America America and progressives who more often appear focused on what they can do with this country than what we are, regard it as superfluous.

It will be interesting to see, as the reintroduction of the Constitution into the House legislative process unfolds, these differences sharpen between Republicans who get the message of the Tea Party and everyone else on Capitol Hill. It will also be interesting to see the effects of that sharpening when a new election cycle unfolds in 2012.

UPDATE: In case the reader might conclude we’re reading too much into Klein’s quote and unfairly branding him with typically Left-Progressive views on the Constitution, we offer this past quote from Klein on the concept of the 17th Amendment and the criticisms that it disrupted the traditional check the states had on the federal government:

I’ve never understood this sort of thing, and said so in the panel. The Founders didn’t wisely orient the Senate around states. They pragmatically oriented the Senate around states. But now that we’ve been the United States of America for a while and none of the states seem likely to secede, the fact that California has 69 times more people than Wyoming but the same representation in the Senate is an offensive anachronism, at least to Californians.  I went on to say that at this point in history, if we wanted the upper body to be based around quotas, then income, age bracket and education made more sense than states. Then I came home and read Kevin Drum’s post echoing Larry Bartels’s research (pdf) showing “that the responsiveness of senators to the views of the poor and working class is….zero. Or maybe even negative. And that’s true for both parties. The middle class does better — again, with both parties — and high earners do better still.” Conversely, the body’s responsiveness to the views of North Dakota’s farmers is really incredible.  Back in February, Annie Lowrey* wrote a piece estimating the Senate’s composition if it was organized around income, gender and race, and age.



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