So we’ve finished the 20th, and one hopes the last, of the GOP candidates’ debates. With only a few intermittent and wholly inadequate flashes, there has been little substantive reference to or discussion of the Constitution. I don’t think even once did one of the media morons ask the candidates for their opinion of whether Obamacare’s individual mandate violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Yes, Ron Paul tries to squeeze in his view that just about everything the federal government does these days is unconstitutional, but Rep. Paul suffers from a crabbed form of constitutional literalism that thinks everything is unconstitutional that isn’t enumerated specifically in Article I, Section 8. Here’s a question alert reporter might pose (if there were such as thing as an “alert reporter”): “Rep. Paul, Article I, Section 8 says Congress may provide for an army and a navy. Is the Air Force therefore unconstitutional?” I suspect Rep. Paul could not give a coherent account of his answer to this question, unless he went with the plainly absurd “No.”
We deserve better from the GOP field, a point I dilate today in the Daily Caller with the latest spin-off of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama. An extended excerpt:
But it is amazing that there’s been virtually no serious question asked of the candidates about their extended views of, for example, the Commerce Clause of Article I, and whether they think Obamacare is compatible with it. It would provide an occasion for each candidate to anchor their limited government views in our charter of limited government, and remind the American people of the fundamental principles of that document. Ron Paul seemingly does the best job overall, referencing a strict view of the enumerated powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, but he doesn’t really offer a fully developed constitutional philosophy.
This contrasts sharply with previous presidents and successful presidential campaigns, which often signaled important changes in direction in our understanding of the Constitution by making sustained arguments about its meaning. In modern times, Franklin Roosevelt made an extensive argument, on the eve of the 1932 election, about why the Constitution needed to be understood in new ways amidst the crisis of the Great Depression, and then again in his infamous “court packing” crusade in his second term. A few years before FDR, Calvin Coolidge, who was not the “Silent Cal” of historical repute, argued vigorously against the Progressive Era idea that’s come to be known as the “living Constitution.” And the most prominent champion of that idea was Woodrow Wilson, who enjoys the dubious reputation of being the first president to criticize the Constitution openly.
With only a few exceptions (Ronald Reagan was one), for some reason in recent decades presidential candidates have grown increasingly illiterate about the Constitution, supinely surrendering to the view that constitutional interpretation is a matter relegated to the Supreme Court. Presidents and candidates for the office throughout the whole of the 19th century took seriously not merely their duty to the Constitution, as spelled out in their oath of office “to preserve, protect, and defend” it, but their indispensable role as teachers of the American people. Most inaugural addresses of 19th-century presidents devoted half their length to discussing the Constitution and our obligations to uphold it. Today it typically receives a brief and almost ceremonial mention in most inaugural addresses.