Byrne v. Zorn: This election is about emancipation

This is one of my periodic debates with Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist Eric Zorn. It also is posted here in Zorn's blog, "Change of Subject: The Rhubarb Patch." You can post your comments here or on Eric's blog--or, if you're feeling so moved, on both.

To Dennis, from Eric:

Where were we?

Oh, yes. Back in November when we last talked politics in this space, you wrapped up by contending that Barack Obama is “arguably the most liberal president since, well, ever.” You’ve since put it more dramatically.

A month ago, in your regular Tuesday column on the Commentary page, you called Obama “the most extremist president this country has suffered since, well, whenever,” referred to the “horribles of his first term” and shuddered at “the committees of government maestros scripting every phase of your medical care. The bailouts for everyone. (And) the bureaucrats diagraming the rest of our lives.”

Really? What has he done to inspire such nutty overstatement?

Was it pushing through health reform that preserves the private insurance system and was cobbled together with spare parts left over from the Nixon administration, mainstream 1990s Republicans and Mitt “I was a severely conservative governor” Romney?

Was it continuing the bank and auto bailouts that started under President George W. Bush in 2008 and almost certainly prevented a complete financial disaster?

Was it backing “cap-and-trade” methods to control pollution, initially the brainchild of free-market conservatives and the pet project of President George H.W. Bush?

Was it attempting to reinstitute for the richest Americans a return to the federal income tax rates they paid under President Bill Clinton?

Speaking of Clinton, who clobbered the Bushes in a recent Gallup poll rating ex-presidents, in 1998 you inveighed against his “liberal if not extremist platform anathema to most Americans.”

In 2002 you wrote that “Washington is amok with left-wing extremists,” and in 2006 you called Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin “the most extreme and obnoxious senator of them all.”

So perhaps I’m making too much of you simply revisiting a favorite accusation. Or perhaps you have personally lost a cherished freedom since Obama was sworn in. Perhaps you can name something he’s done in the White House that meets any common definition of “extreme” and explains why you seem to hate him more than any president since, well, ever.

From Dennis, to Eric:

Wow, you must have spent a lot of time in those dusty archives. Hope you feel better.

I gather that you’re trying to trip me up by showing that things I or Republicans once (sort of) favored when they were GOP proposals I now oppose simply because Obama wants them. Proving that I’m — just like those typical hateful Republicans — inconsistent, if not hypocritical.

Nice try.

Maybe you can name me a more liberal president. Or a more obnoxious senator than Durbin? (He was supplanted in 2005 by Obama as the most liberal senator.)

If you think I’m nutty to fear bureaucrats scripting our lives, then you haven’t thought much about Obamacare, oh, excuse me the 2,700-page monstrosity that I’m supposed to call the ironically titled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The thing that in no way will restrict our choices or liberties.

But why bother contemplating such matters when it’s easier to call someone nutty? Oh, you may have missed it in your tedious archive search, but I opposed the bank and auto bailouts when Bush pushed them. Or perhaps you didn’t go back far enough in your search to find that I’m no fan of cap and trade, whether conservatives or liberals proposed it.

As for the rich paying their “fair” share of taxes (whatever that is), I think Republicans are a bunch of political blockheads for their bug-eyed defense of the “Bush tax cuts.” If raising taxes for the “top 1 percent” won’t do much to cure the deficit, as Republicans say, then the extra revenue sucked out of the economy won’t do all that much to hurt it either. If we want fair, then let’s follow the recommendation of the Obama deficit reduction commission (which Obama tanked) and eliminate all tax breaks, whether for Solyndra or ExxonMobil.

Now that I’ve chased the bone you threw to get us off topic, why don’t we talk about what the issues are for this election?

From Eric, to Dennis:

Don’t be modest. Searching your archives is never tedious. And I did it not to trip you up, but to try to put into context this nutty — yes I’ll say it again — charge that Obama is our “most extremist president.”

Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson with his Great Society were far more liberally transformative presidents than Obama, to name two. (As for Durbin, the nonpartisan National Journal’s ranking of most liberal U.S. senators has placed him 7th, 8th, 19th and 3rd in the last four years)

“Obamacare” is now the preferred term in both parties. And to say that this admittedly imperfect effort to address at last the problem of tens of millions of uninsured Americans while protecting the interests of private insurers amounts to “bureaucrats scripting our lives” is the sort of wild overstatement I’d expect to see on the picket sign of a guy in a tricorn hat at a tea party rally.

Providing quality, affordable health care to everyone is a huge challenge that will require sacrifices all around.

How best to do that — or if the greatest nation on Earth should even try to do it at all — will be one of the main issues in this election. So will the budget and tax plan put forth by Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and endorsed by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Ryan/Romney will disproportionately benefit the already wealthy at the expense of lower- and middle-income earners and those in at-risk populations.

We don’t have space here to debate fully the merits of that plan and compare it to Obama’s vision for his second term. But I hope we will down the line, and that we can do it without slinging incendiary adjectives.

Speaking of adjectives, I’m not calling you nutty. I’m calling your accusations nutty.

And if you can back them up by responding with substance to the last paragraph in my first installment, I might even withdraw the charge.

From Dennis, to Eric:

What I’ve written in the past won’t be what Americans will be thinking about when they vote this November. Most aren’t interested in a scholarly or rhetorical faceoff about who’s been the most transformative president.

For many, the issues are much more practical. The economy, in a tortuously slow recovery, probably is upfront for most. People have lost their jobs and homes. They’ve seen their life savings melt away, their private pension funds go belly up, their home equity disappear, their credit go up in smoke and their mortgage disappear underwater, only to find themselves in bankruptcy court.

Myself? I think Americans tend to give too much credit to or place too much blame on the president for the state of a complex and massive economy that usually plays its own tune. Of course, Obama adviser David Axelrod on Sunday still couldn’t help himself, blaming the struggling economy on “the same failed policies that were so disastrous in the last decade,” i.e. President George W. Bush. Amusing.

My beef in this presidential election is more fundamental than “economic policy.” It is a mindset that things won’t get out of hand because Washington is “here,” as in, “Here I come to save the day! Mighty Mouse is on the way!” Mighty Mouse being all the politicians, bureaucrats, scholars, academics, theoreticians and ideologues who congregate under the Democratic banner in the certain knowledge that “they know better.”

Obamacare, for all its practical and constitutional flaws, is but a symptom of that mindset — of an arrogance that claims an intelligence so superior that it is capable of creating “plans” and “programs” for 313,232,044 people who might have different ideas of what is good for them. It is a mindset that proclaims we must first pass Obamacare and wait until later to “find out what’s in it.” It is revealed by a president who proclaims, “I am the decider.”

Call it raw populism or anti-intellectualism on my part, the kind described in Richard Hofstader’s classic work, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” But disagreeing with the experts populating Obama’s administration and his “change-agent” following is not evidence that we are a nation of dolts. It is a sign of a vibrant, intellectually alive America unsatisfied with imposed “comprehensive solutions.” This election is about emancipation.

From Eric, to Dennis:

We’re almost out of room for the print version of this exchange, but before I turn the floor back over to you for the last word, I’ll add that a sure way to stall out an already too-slow economic recovery will be to institute Ryan/Romney austerity measures and slash services to those who are already hurting.

And that yet another trip to the archives uncovered this:

“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.” —George W. Bush, April 4, 2006

From Dennis, to Eric:

OK, let’s raise taxes; it’ll make a lot of people feel better. And let’s not “slash” services. We’ll go along just as we have been; I’m sure once those Washington geniuses get the 17 percent of the economy that is health care humming along, they’ll work their magic on making our $15.6 trillion debt disappear. Mighty Mouse is on the way!

Previous Byrne and Zorn debates:

• Will GOP presidential hopefuls fail to KO wobbly Obama? (Nov. 2011)
• Spending and tax policy (Aug. 2011)
• Medicare reform (May, 2011)
• Are government workers overpaid? (Dec. 2010)
• The Rorschach video of Rahm Emanuel on the stump (Oct. 2010)
• Is Kirk v. Giannoulias a proxy vote on Obama?  (Oct. 2010)
• Quinn v. Brady (Sept. 2010)
• Bush-era tax cuts (Sept. 2010)
• How can we stop the violence (July, 2010)
• Where does Illinois go from here? (May 17, 2010)
• The search for middle ground between left and right (April, 2010)
• School vouchers (Feb. 2010)
• Health-care reform (Jan 2010)


Leave a comment
  • Why do I always feel like I am listening to a ten-year-old when reading Zorn?

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    I always find it funny when someone asks you to justify your opinion, which is where Zorn starts this. As if there was an answer that would actually satisfy his "curiosity".

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