Twenty-two years ago, my esteemed colleague Dan Henninger wrote a blockbuster Journal editorial titled “No Guardrails.” Its subject was people “who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them,” as well as the elites who excuse this lack of self-control and the birth of a less-civilized culture.
We are today witnessing the political version of this phenomenon. That’s how to make sense of a presidential race that grows more disconnected from normality by the day.
Barack Obama has done plenty of damage to the country, but perhaps the worst is his determined destruction of Washington’s guardrails. Mr. Obama wants what he wants. If ObamaCare is problematic, he unilaterally alters the law. If Congress won’t change the immigration system, he refuses to enforce it. If the nation won’t support laws to fight climate change, he creates one with regulation. If the Senate won’t confirm his nominees, he declares it in recess and installs them anyway. “As to limits, you set your own,” observed Dan in that editorial. This is our president’s motto.
Mr. Obama doesn’t need anyone to justify his actions, because he’s realized no one can stop him. He gets criticized, but at the same time his approach has seeped into the national conscience. It has set new norms. You see this in the ever-more-outrageous proposals from the presidential field, in particular front-runners Hillary Clinton andDonald Trump.
Mrs. Clinton routinely vows to govern by diktat. On Wednesday she unveiled a raft of proposals to punish companies that flee the punitive U.S. tax system. Mrs. Clinton will ask Congress to implement her plan, but no matter if it doesn’t. “If Congress won’t act,” she promises, “then I will ask the Treasury Department, when I’m there, to use its regulatory authority.”
Mrs. Clinton and fellow liberals don’t like guns and are frustrated that the duly elected members of Congress (including those from their own party) won’t strengthen background checks. So she has promised to write regulations that will unilaterally impose such a system.
On immigration, Mr. Obama ignored statute with executive actions to shield illegals from deportation. Mrs. Clinton brags that she will go much, much further with sweeping exemptions to immigration law.
For his part, Mr. Trump sent the nation into an uproar this week with his call to outright ban Muslims from entering the country. Is this legally or morally sound? Who cares! Mr. Trump specializes in disdain for the law, the Constitution, and any code of civilized conduct. Guardrails are for losers. He’d set up a database to track Muslims or force them to carry special IDs. He’d close mosques. He’d deport kids born on American soil. He’d seize Iraq’s oil fields. He’d seize remittance payments sent back to Mexico. He’d grab personal property for government use.
Mr. Obama’s dismantling of boundaries isn’t restrained to questions of law; he blew up certain political ethics, too. And yes there are—or used to be—such things. Think what you may about George W. Bush’s policies, but he respected the office of the presidency. He believed he represented all Americans. He didn’t demonize.
Today’s divisive president never misses an opportunity to deride Republicans or the tea party. He is more scornful toward fellow Americans than toward Islamic State. This too sets new norms. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid now uses the chamber to accuse individual citizens of being “un-American.” Asked recently what “enemy” she was most proud of making, Mrs. Clinton lumped “Republicans” in with “the Iranians.” Ted Cruz rose to prominence by mocking his Republican colleagues as “squishes.” Mr. Trump has disparaged women, the other GOP contenders, Iowans, wives, the disabled, Jews. (Granted, he might have done this even without Mr. Obama’s example.)
Can such leaders be trusted to administer Washington fairly? Of course not. That guardrail is also gone. Mr. Obama egged on his IRS to target conservatives, used his Justice Department to exact retribution on politically unpopular banks, and had his EPA lead an armed raid of an Alaskan mine. Is it any wonder that Bernie Sanders’s climate plan, released this week, includes a vow to bring criminal prosecutions against “climate deniers”? And he would.
For that matter, is it any wonder that some Republicans are calling on the IRS to audit Mrs. Clinton’s foundation? When did conservatives go from wanting to abolish the IRS to wanting to use it against rivals? When did they turn their back on the institutional check of the filibuster? When Democrats busted through those rails, of course.
“No Guardrails” took aim at political and intellectual leaders who failed in their special duty to elevate institutions and rules. When those leaders go further, and openly break all the rules, there really is nothing left to restrain the political passions.
The more outrageous Mr. Trump is, the more his numbers soar. The more Mrs. Clinton promises to cram an agenda down the throats of her “enemies,” the more enthusiastic her base. The more unrestrained the idea, the more press coverage; the more ratings soar, the more unrestrained the idea. The humble candidates—those with big ideas, but with respect for order and honor—are lost to the shouting.