Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Socialism We Can Believe In

Ben Johnson | 10/29/2008

Now that a 2001 public radio interview has surfaced to confirm The One has plotted to redistribute middle class wealth since the beginning of his political career, the media are in overdrive to save their savior. In a burst of “news” stories culled directly from the talking points of the George Soros-funded Media Matters, a string of reporters have accused the McCain/Palin campaign of misrepresenting Obama’s statements and ideology. In the process, these impartial journalists and analysts for the nation’s most prestigious media outlets have obfuscated more than McCain could manage in his most imaginative “rhetorical flourish.” Obama spokesman Bill Burton responded in identical fashion to other irrefutable scandals, such as his candidate’s longtime association with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright: he channeled the Wizard of Oz. “This is a fake news controversy,” he said, “drummed up by the all too common alliance of Fox News, the Drudge Report, and John McCain, who apparently decided to close out his campaign with the same false, desperate attacks that have failed for months.” After shooting the messengers, the campaign, and its allies at Media Matters, claimed Obama had merely been offering an intellectual assessment of civil rights strategy – and in no way advocating (perish the thought!) the Supreme Court redistribute wealth. In his only remark addressing the content of the tape, Burton asserted, “In this seven-year-old interview, Senator Obama did not say that the courts should get into the business of redistributing wealth at all.”[1]

Soon, his words found their way into the mouths of multiple unbiased, independent journalists.

The Washington Post awarded the McCain campaign “two Pinocchios” for lying about the tape. “Obama says pretty much the opposite of what the McCain camp says he said,” the Post contended. The paper concluded, “The McCain camp is wrong to suggest that the Illinois senator advocated an [sic.] ‘wealth redistribution’ role for the Supreme Court.”

Obama made his now-infamous comments on “Odyssey,” a program hosted on the Chicago NPR station WBEZ-FM. Chicago Public Radio quickly rolled into full protection mode, with CPR’s Ben Calhoun claiming someone on YouTube “posted excerpts of the interview, edited to misrepresent Obama's statements…Obama’s position is distinctly misrepresented.” He adds, “ironically, he says the Supreme Court was a failure in cases that it took on a role of redistributing resources.”

Others went further in defending the pure common sense of Obama’s call for “economic justice.” Andrew Sullivan blogged, “it seems to me that this statement is actually a conservative one about the limits of judicial activism. Is this really all McCain has left?”

Yet no one could equal NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who said, with a straight face, that Obama took “a strict constructionist view.” Mitchell added, “he was saying the courts were not in that business and shouldn’t be in that business.”

The world’s largest news agency joined the fray. The Associated Press charged, “Republican John McCain is misreading seven-year-old comments by rival Barack Obama.” The story implies his comments dealt only with civil rights strategy, not the court. It added, “Obama did not define redistributive change in the interview, but he said one example of such change involves education, ‘how do we get more money into the schools and how do we actually create equal schools and equal educational opportunity.’” Thus, “redistribution” simply means equal schooling; who could be against that?

The last emphasis echoed the defense Cass Sunstein offered in The New Republic. In Sunstein’s telling, Obama:

complained, not that the Court refused to enter into those issues, but that “the civil-rights movement became so court-focussed” [sic.] … In answering a caller’s question, he said that the court “is just not very good at” redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution “is generally a charter of negative liberties”…Obama was referring to the sorts of claims being made in courts in the relevant period, for which the word “redistribution” has often been used. (Those claims involved denials of education and medical care, and discrimination in welfare programs.) It is true that Obama supports the Earned Income Tax Credit (an idea pioneered by Republicans)…

But it is truly ridiculous to take Obama's remarks in 2001 as suggesting that the nation should embark on a large-scale redistributive scheme.

The piece does not mention Sunstein is “a Harvard law professor who is advising Obama.”[2]

In all these cases, one is left with the impression his is merely a meandering historical argument of refined legal theory, using highly specified language that does not mean what it sounds like. Normal people like Joe the Plumber cannot possibly comprehend it. However, all these media reports distort the facts and leave a false impression that covers up the explosive revelation contained in his own words: Barack Obama believes the Constitution embodies a “fundamental flaw” in the fabric of America “that continues to this day,” has pined for “economic justice” for at least a decade, seeks political power to implement “wealth redistribution” with the aid of Congress, implies the Supreme Court should “break free” from the “constraints” of the Founders, believes public financing of abortion is an “important” aspect of the struggle, and has promised an “activist” Executive Branch to enforce his socialistic vision.

Obama begins, as his media backers note, by discussing “the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the Court.” Among its successes he counts the High Court’s vesting blacks with “formal rights,” such as the right to vote. “But,” he rapidly pivots, “the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.” This he plainly counts among the movement’s “failures,” indeed “tragedies.”

This indicates he intends more than mere adequate funding for Tuscaloosa elementaries but the fundamental economic life of the nation. He illustrated the success of “formal rights” by saying under the Court’s rulings, “I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order, and as long as I could pay for it, I’d be OK.” He later answered a caller’s question about whether it was “too late” for nationwide “reparative economic work.” (See below.) Later yet, when fellow panelist Susan Bandes broached the topic of the Supreme Court’s upholding lawmakers’ right to prohibit the federal funding of abortion, Obama replied that the justices did not order funding, as they would if they were activists. They decided whether it was “a legitimate prohibition,” adding, “I think those are very important battles that have to be fought, and they do have a distributive aspect to them.” (Media Matters dropped this phrase from later press releases.) Barack Obama’s comments clearly touched upon a broad view of redistribution of wealth, encompassing everything from minority income to abortion subsidies, all viewed favorably. (In fact, Obama still supports taxpayer funding for abortion and has vowed to restore it.)

Far from making a “strict constructionist” argument that the High Court should not rule on such matters, he made a procedural argument that there are more effective ways to remedy this tragedy. In response to a question whether it was “too late” for “reparative economic work,” and whether it should be mandated by the courts or the legislature, Obama assessed, “I’m not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. The institution just isn’t structured that way” and is “just not very good at it.” He added, “any three of us sitting here” on this panel “could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts. I think that as a practical matter our courts are just poorly equipped to do it.”

That constitutes a robust rejection of neither judicial activism nor economic redistribution, which he had endorsed above. He simply projected the Supreme Court would not be the most likely nor most effective vehicle for these policies. In his remarks on the civil rights movement’s “tragedies,” he listed foremost its failure “to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.” He observed, “in some ways we still suffer from that” – namely, that community organizers have not yet elected one of their own to the White House. He now leads what is, according to polls, the nation’s largest power-seeking coalition. In 2001, Obama deemed redistribution “a process that is essentially administrative”; one is hardly out of bounds in asking whether it will make the agenda of an Obama administration. The Post admits in its article that “Dennis Hutchinson, a University of Chicago law professor who joined Obama in the panel discussion” told them, “‘Obama said that redistribution of wealth issues need to be decided by legislatures, not by the courts. That is what a progressive income tax is all about.’” Sunstein defined redistribution by presenting a list of numerous extant federal wealth-transfer programs including the progressive income tax “and much more.” As FrontPage Magazine columnist Paul Sperry addressed yesterday, his little-examined platform outlines a redistributionist agenda heavily geared toward infusing wealth into urban households.

Obama’s interview stokes suspicions all the more with his positive view of an “activist” Executive Branch. When his interviewer, Gretchen Helfrich, mentioned the possibility of a “one-two punch of a Justice Department and a Court together,” he praised the notion. He noted “the sheer resources involved in actively litigating and monitoring activity at the local level” are staggering and not available to the justices, “and without an activist Attorney General’s office and Justice Department that is able to come in and provide just the sheer resources that are required, many of these changes just don’t take place.” If an Obama administration will undo the tragic failure of the civil rights movement to bring about “economic justice,” it will flex federal muscle to do so.

None of which should imply he has no role for an activist Supreme Court. Like a true law professor, he found the notoriously activist Warren Court “wasn’t that radical,” because it:

didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and [the] Warren Court interpreted it in the same way, that, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted.

Having listened to the audio, this author did not hear these last words spoken “with approval.” And if Obama appoints the Court’s justices, its outlook could well shift from negative to positive rights; in fact, he cites state courts as encouraging signs of this elsewhere in the interview. However, the judicial philosophy implicit in this statement is frightening: that the Founding Fathers’ views of limited government are “constraints” from which the nation should “break free.” (He did not describe, e.g., the 14th amendment or the elastic clause in such negative terms.) The Founders crafted “negative rights” for a reason. George Washington told his fellow countrymen, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” For that reason, Thomas Jefferson urged “in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” By contrast, Barack Obama urges the government to become free at last.

To do so, he believes the Court can “take judicial notice of” societal phenomena and interpret the Constitution accordingly. “[Y]ou’ve got a whole host of social conditions that the Court inevitably is influenced by,” he stated with approval. He added the Warren Court took these developments into consideration to enact “one of those rare circumstances where the Court is willing to get slightly beyond conventional opinion, and stake a place sort of beyond the political mainstream.” However, “in the case of Brown, I think there were a lot of social changes...before you see the Supreme Court being willing to venture out into the areas that they did.” But the role of the Court is not to orient itself around conventional social and political opinion, whether ahead, behind, or in the middle of its dominant arc; its role is to interpret the U.S. Constitution as written. As an increasing number of Supreme Court justices believe they must take foreign law into consideration, rejection of this principle grows more ominous.

As does the agenda Obama lays out in the interview. In one stunning passage, he likened the environmental debate to the abolitionist movement, lamenting that current environmental laws are made on a cost-benefit analysis rather than on the basis of rights – as though the land had the same worth as a human slave. This, he seems to say, must be rectified.

He further states slavery itself has not been cleaned up yet. He said, “The Constitution reflected a [sic.] enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on to this day.” He went on to make clear this was the document’s acceptance of slavery. Thus the Constitution “reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.” Obama clearly believes, in some sense, slavery has not yet been stamped out. One can reasonably assume he would thus favor reparations to establish “political and economic justice in this society” at last. Perhaps this sense of urgency explains why he believes his election is “the moment…that the world has been waiting for.” Yet the view that slavery lingers in 21st century America is perhaps the most contemptuous thing one can say about a country that lost hundreds of thousands of lives fighting a war to end slavery, endured massive social upheaval to bury Jim Crow, transferred untold trillions of dollars of wealth so that we would “wipe away the scars of centuries,” then welcomed the son of a Kenyan Muslim reared in a foreign land and are presently entertaining a national debate about elevating him to the most powerful office in the world.

It is, however, precisely what is to be expected from an individual reared by an “unreconstructed liberal” mother of the ‘60s era, an individual who consciously sought out Marxist professors – both as college instructors and as sponsors for his career in Chicago politics.

Far from an insignificant and highly theoretical bout of legal navel-gazing, this 2001 interview provides a clear glimpse into the ideology Obama wishes to implement. For this reason, the transcripts must be assailed – with those news outlets that report them.

After all, he does not have the luxury of saying he made these comments when he was naïve and inexperienced, because he is still naïve and inexperienced. Further, reparations based on race, sex, class, or sexual orientation still lie at the heart of his judicial philosophy. His only option is to deny the words on the page. His fan base in the media has gotten ahead of him on the matter. Will he be successful in his effort to deny his own views and thereby get an opportunity to implement them?

Next Tuesday, we may find out.


1. Bill Burton later got into an on-air tiff with Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, ironically charging her network with having “an agenda.”

2. The Earned Income Tax Credit was created by Senator Russell Long, D-Louisiana, the son of the infamous Huey “Kingfish” Long, whose program for addressing the Great Depression was known as “Share Our Wealth.” Its central pillar stated, “by limiting the size of the fortunes and incomes of the big men, we will throw into the government Treasury the money and property from which we will care for the millions of people who have nothing.”

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