Elections

Symbols for the Symbol Minded

Even though the text of the war powers resolution may have been directly in line with the principles laid out in our Constitution, House Democrats obviously intended the measure to serve as a cudgel with which to publicly flog the president.  

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was roundly criticized on the Right last week for voting for a joint resolution that many saw as a rebuke of President Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

If the toothless concurrent resolution did contain a rebuke, it was not clear from the actual text. The resolution merely directed the president to terminate the use of U.S. armed forces in hostilities against Iran unless Congress declared war or specifically authorized such use or such use is necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent attack upon the United States. 

The resolution also contained several uncontroversial findings —including that “the United States has an inherent right to self-defense against imminent armed attacks,” that “Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was the lead architect of much of Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the world,” and that the “War Powers Resolution requires the President to consult with Congress ‘in every possible instance’ before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

Gaetz explained his vote on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. He noted the resolution did not criticize the president and also that it did not say that the United States was wrong to kill Soleimani. The resolution simply restated Congress’ constitutionally protected war powers, as enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. 

We should take Gaetz at his word and believe him when he says that he voted for the resolution on principle, believes that the president remained within his rights in ordering the killing of Soleimani, and continues to be one of President Trump’s staunchest supporters. Gaetz consistently has shown his temerity and steadfast loyalty both to President Trump and his ardent supporters.

But this entire debacle serves as a reminder of how dysfunctional our politics are. 

Playing Into the Narrative

Even though the text of the war powers resolution may have been directly in line with the principles laid out in our Constitution, House Democrats obviously intended the measure to serve as a cudgel with which to publicly flog the president.

Even though the president has defended his actions by arguing that Soleimani’s killing was indeed necessary and appropriate to defend an imminent attack upon the United States and even though any sane observer can see that the president desperately wants to avoid war, the resolution nonetheless plays into the Democrats’ narrative that they are checking a bellicose and out-of-control president.

The whole vote on the resolution was designed by Pelosi to force Republicans either to vote against their principles or vote for a largely symbolic resolution that could be spun into a public relations disaster for the president. It was meant to cleave Republicans apart and to try to smear the president in public. 

The resolution is tantamount to one calling on the president of the United States to terminate any domestic abuse of the first lady. Even if the pure text of such a resolution makes no claims that the president, in fact, abused the first lady, the obvious subtext is that he did. After all, why would we need such a resolution if he hadn’t?

The level of nuance of the Democrats’ arguments and the strong sense of tradition they now ape lays bare their hypocrisy. They do not care about principles—they care about results.

Principle Has Nothing to Do With It

Politics is drenched in hypocrisy and this sad fact of life is unlikely to change anytime soon. And while Republicans have tried playing the principled straight man for the past few decades, they have just ended up playing the fool. They have been on the defensive for a long time and Democrats have played them and their amped-up sincerity like a precisely tuned fiddle.

We can try to appeal to the better angels of our nature to avoid the inherent ugliness in politics. After all, the etiquette associated with politics has been built up over a long time with good reason. It was based on a shared understanding that neither side would stoop to certain levels lest the other side followed suit. It was a carefully choreographed détente.

But as this etiquette has eroded and has been replaced increasingly with the mere aesthetics of the now long-forgotten etiquette, we can no longer afford to play the stupid public relations games at which that Democrats have become so adept at whipping us.

So, no, Representative Gaetz, the war powers resolution had nothing to do with protecting the constitutional powers of Congress. It was an attack, pure and simple, on the president. Like much of our media today, it was a carefully constructed hit piece meant to give the appearance of impropriety while cloaking itself in carefully lawyered up language.

It is amazing to see the very people who have called for the abolition of the Electoral College, the packing of the courts, the abandonment of our bicameral system through proportional representation in the Senate, the repeal of the Second Amendment, and a massive expansion of federal power suddenly concern themselves with what the Constitution says.

The level of nuance of the Democrats’ arguments and the strong sense of tradition they now ape lays bare their hypocrisy. They do not care about principles—they care about results. And they are happy to use whatever tools they can—whether they be demagoguery, class warfare, “principled appeals,” or nationalistic entreaties—to try to get their way. And they are smart enough to be effective.

Ugliness and Contempt 

While we all wish we were wealthy and privileged enough—secure in our own material and societal position—to be able to do “the right thing” and not stoop to the levels at which our opponents regularly reside, we have a country to save. With a society cracking at the seams, we do not have enough latitude to believe in the sincerity of our elites when they insist on gentlemanly decorum.

We can sincerely hope that over the next few decades we will rebuild the social fabric and respect that allows us to avoid the ugliness that can creep into politics. But anyone who believes that President Trump brought the ugliness into politics is sorely mistaken.

Republicans, conservatives, and many others on the Right have been on the receiving end of this ugliness—carefully hidden through lawyered language rife with smug contempt—for decades. The only difference now is that we are fighting back—and we’re going to beat the other side at its own game.