Obama and Cruz: Two Harvard Peas in a Pod

During my forty-five years as a political activist, one group of pols has gotten my dander up time and again: Harvard Law School graduates. Many of them are overly strident and have an inflated sense of themselves. They believe they are above the rules of civility and fair play (and sometimes above the law) because they think they’re the smartest people in the room.

Over the years I have culled a long list of sanctimonious crimson graduates that include Senator Charles Schumer and former N.Y. Governor Eliot Spitzer.  But today, given the threat of a government shutdown by this evening, President Barack Obama and Senator Ted Cruz top my list.

After five years in office, President Obama still believes he is always right and anyone who challenges his vision is unworthy, insensitive, evil, and morally and intellectually bankrupt.  He takes no responsibility for our fiscal, economic and cultural woes.  Instead he blames George W. Bush and Republican legislators.

Obama has had no reluctance to undercut the very foundations of our democracy and to impose the rule of a single elite. Hence, he has not been bashful about ruling by executive fiat.  He has ordered his minions to force Catholic institutions to cover morally objectionable procedures in their health insurance plans, while not enforcing laws on the books like the Defense of Marriage Act. And his administration has executed immigration policies that violate existing statues.  He has arbitrarily suspended parts of the Affordable Health Care Act he signed into law because he determined they are administratively or politically inconvenient to enforce.

The junior Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, while on the side of the angels when it comes to several hot-button issues that matter to Catholics, also exudes Harvard Law School arrogance.

 He believes he was elected to office last November to uphold his principles in the halls of the Senate no matter the long-term consequences.  He has referred to Republican colleagues who disagree with his tactics and his crusade to defund Obamacare as “squishes” and that they betray the opposition to Obamacare.

It appears that both Obama and Cruz fail to understand that the national government was purposely designed by the Founding Fathers to ensure a certain amount of gridlock in order to force all factions to compromise and to forge a consensus.  They wanted to make sure that no branch of government or chief executive or congressional cabal possessed too much power to impose its political will or agenda.  They wanted to curtail impulsiveness in politics that could lead to contagious epidemics that pass bad legislation that was not property vetted (i.e., Obamacare).

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, argued for three branches of government to avoid political decisions that were “impetuous,” “overheated” or “hasty.”  Madison wanted federal government to be “focused on ‘permanent’ needs rather than immediate desires.”  That’s why the U.S. Senate is called the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Madison believed that the government was framed to reconcile order with freedom.  In Federalist 51 he described why that was necessary, and he drew on knowledge of human nature and a larger religious perspective:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
He continued:
In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each [is] subdivided among distinct and separate departments.  Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.  The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.

Conflicting parties and philosophies and a system designed to be inefficient prevent fleeting majorities and demagogues from becoming tyrannical.  “America’s public policy dysfunction exists,” George Will has pointed out “not because Democracy isn’t working, but because it is.”

To learn to govern, the Harvard men should look to Ronald Reagan.  He negotiated agreements consistent with his vision and principles, but concluded, “If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say you take it and fight for the rest later, and that’s what I told those radical conservatives who never got used to it.”

Senator Cruz and his Congressional confreres must learn that the “my way or the highway attitude” is not going to work – particularly when the GOP controls only one half of one branch of the government. They need to look to seasoned colleagues who fought against passage of Obamacare, and wisely argue it will collapse under its own weight.

If they refuse to negotiate and to achieve what is possible and the government closes down – which could happen before today is out – there will be untold long-term damage to causes they claim to champion.  The backlash from the 80 percent of Americans who oppose a shutdown could cost control of the House, any hope of achieving a Senate majority in 2014, and the presidency in 2016.

The next two federal election cycles are very important for the future composition of the U.S. Supreme Court and for religious liberty issues.  We can’t afford cul-de-sac tactics that might give momentary satisfaction but cause irreversible harm.

Unlike his fellow Harvard alum, Obama, who refuses to negotiate and accuses opponents of being “extremists” and “anarchists,” Cruz should take a lesson from the man from Eureka College who understood Madisonian democracy and, as a result, became a transformational figure.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.