The Republican war on the Constitution

For a GOP doubling down on a strategy of division and discrimination, the Constitution appears increasingly old and in the way.

Robert Shrum

It is the party of Lincoln no more.

As part of a crass strategy to appeal to anti-immigrant paranoia and racism, Republican leaders are now assaulting the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment, which was passed after Lincoln’s death, ratified his life’s work. Republicans propose to repeal its guarantee of citizenship as a birthright, and while the impetus for this assault on constitutional principle comes from the GOP’s tea-intoxicated fringe, it has been seconded by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham. In today’s GOP, the few with loose morals vie to lead the many with loose marbles.

Ever since JFK and LBJ took up the cause of civil rights, Republicans have executed a “Southern Strategy” to harvest the ballots of bias and backlash. But they now tread where no serious political party has since the days of “massive resistance” to integration. The Arizona law that sanctions racial profiling of Hispanics shows just how far the GOP of 2010 is willing to degrade fundamental constitutional rights in order to reap the electoral rewards of race-baiting.

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Stoking nativism and bigotry, Republicans mount a latter-day "massive resistance."

As president, George W. Bush favored at least six constitutional amendments—to require a balanced budget (even as he ran up historic deficits); to ban flag-burning and same-sex marriage; to roll back a woman’s right to choose; to permit official prayer in public schools; and to establish so-called victim’s rights in criminal proceedings, a misnamed measure that would have undermined the presumption of innocence. Bush’s Anti-Bill of Rights, which stoked the fires of intolerance against gays, helped to secure his narrow re-election in 2004.

Six years later, the GOP’s assaults on the nation’s charter have multiplied.

The pre–Civil War doctrine of nullification has been revived in the form of this week’s Missouri ballot initiative, which purports to let that state void the application of federal health reform to its citizens. Similarly, the Arizona law’s disdain for constitutional boundaries and individual rights, and the movement to subvert the Fourteenth Amendment now sanctioned by Republican leaders, are designed to appeal to the very worst in our history and ourselves.

The federal court opinion striking down the California ban on same-sex marriage will add one more weapon to this arsenal of prejudice. GOP candidates can now trash another provision of the Fourteenth Amendment—the requirement of “equal protection of the laws.” This may be dumb politics in the long run. But this GOP, which reflexively bows to backlash and bigotry, seeks power now.

In an infamous campaign, a strategist for anti-busing Democrat Ed King, the successful candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 1978, said, “We put all the hate groups in one pot and let it boil.” That recipe has become as fundamental to contemporary GOP politics as voodoo economics.

You can see it in the cauldron of opposition to a mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Enduring anger about the terrorist outrage has been distorted into a crusade against anyone who practices the Islamic faith. Rick Lazio, the hopeless Republican nominee for governor of New York, hopes to ride to victory on the buckboard of such bigotry. Other Republicans have chimed in, predictably Rudolph Giuliani and inevitably Newt Gingrich, who offered up this argument (if you can call it that): “No mosque near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

By this preposterous logic would Gingrich have opposed the building of Catholic churches in America during the decades when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco forbade “external manifestations or ceremonies” for any non-Catholic faith?

Showing that bigotry serves stupidity as well as ambition, Republican Rep. Peter King explained his objections to the mosque with this non sequitur: “It’s a house of worship, but we are at war with Al Qaeda.” (After bingeing on hypocrisy, the Anti-Defamation League staggered to embrace this drunken logic.)

To his credit, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in front of the Statue of Liberty, defied the outcry, and with clergy of many denominations around him defended the fundamental American principle of religious freedom.

If Bloomberg can lead, so can Obama. Assaults on basic American freedoms must be met with more than a tepid, carefully phrased press statement like the one the White House issued after the federal court decision on same-sex marriage. Of course, the president himself is a prime target of this politics of prejudice. Girding the Right’s various racial and nativist attacks is the pernicious fiction, fueled by Limbaugh and his imitators at Fox and on the nether regions of the radio dial, of an anti-white conspiracy perpetrated by America’s first black president. Still, Obama’s responsibility is inescapable. For as FDR said, “The presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership.” Thus President Kennedy answered the anger sparked by the Supreme Court decision on school prayer by forthrightly, and wryly, defending the ruling: “We have in this case a very easy remedy … [E]very American family can pray a good deal more at home.”

Political officials who take their oath seriously should be cautious about how they act in the heat of the hour. With its heightening disregard for American principles, the Republican Party is increasingly a place of moral bankruptcy, its leaders destined for shame. Having already obstructed the path to economic recovery and prolonged the pain of millions who are out of work, Republican leaders are increasingly willing to debase the Constitution for partisan gain.

I myself am a partisan Democrat, proudly so, but proud too that I have always had friends on the other side. I would rather argue about economics or war and peace than see the Party of No doubling down on a strategy of division and discrimination, driven by desperation for power. Too many Republicans have taken this route; too many others have acquiesced. They may calculate that this brand of politics will work with enough voters in 2010 to make it worth the awful price. But if such politics prevail over time, America itself won’t work anymore.

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