- - Monday, March 28, 2016


Last week the gentlemen first and second in the line of succession to the presidency delivered contrasting speeches that speak, volumes about the contemporary state of American politics.

The first, delivered by House Speaker Paul Ryan to a group of Capitol Hill interns, called for increased cooperation and civility in our politics to better further the public’s interest. A former intern himself, Mr. Ryan knows full well how the starry-eyed wonder of youth first engaged in the business of government can so easily be supplanted by the cynicism of the alleged grown-ups supposedly mentoring and advising them.

The second was given by Vice President Joe Biden for the specific purpose of refuting one of his own speeches delivered several decades ago concerning the obligation of the Senate to confirm or even consider a presidential appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in a presidential election year.

For those who missed it, Mr. Biden wants everyone to ignore his belief back in 1992 that he and his fellow senators had no moral, political or constitutional obligation to act on President George H.W. Bush’s appointee to a vacant Supreme Court seat in an election year in favor of his belief today that the Senate has just such an obligation in light of President Obama’s desire to fill a vacancy under very similar circumstances. He has come to the conclusion after all these years that the Senate shouldn’t allow presidential politics to interfere with what he now believes to be its constitutional responsibility to act expeditiously on Mr. Obama’s appointee.

As is so often the case with politicians, Mr. Biden wants us to forget his past positions in favor of his current desires. That is something his former Senate colleagues are not about to allow. “If the Constitution requires a hearing for every nominee, then Vice President Biden violated the Constitution in 1992 when, as Judiciary Committee chairman, he denied a hearing to more than 50 Republican nominees. If the Constitution requires a floor vote on every nominee, then he sought to violate the Constitution nearly 30 times by voting to deny floor votes to Republican nominees,” his former colleague, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, said in reaction to last week’s speech.

Mr. Biden’s continuing partisan hypocrisy is an example of the kind of thing that has fueled the public demand for an outsider and helped send our politics down the path that Mr. Ryan is urging us to abandon. People are tired of politicians they see putting partisan interests and the desires of Washington’s privileged ahead of their own. Donald Trump recognizes this and has profited from that recognition. We may or may not like his answers, but we ought to at least understand why so many are drawn to his message.

The Republican Party is undergoing what economists would call creative destruction as Republican voters — the party’s customers — are demanding a redesigned product lest they begin shopping elsewhere. Mr. Trump has tapped into their dissatisfaction with the old models while others in the Republican establishment would prefer to repackage the same old product and see if they can’t get their customers to continue buying it.

Their day may be over, or it may not. The competition for the future of the party — among those who are just angry, those who seek a harder line on trade, immigration and defense, those who urge a more compassionate approach to the problems of the poor even if it might entail using the power of government to bring about change, and those trying to simply reassert the Reagan vision of a national government limited in breadth and scope — will eventually result in a new consensus and, hopefully, a better product.

Republicans have been there before. Ronald Reagan shook things up quite a bit when he hit town, but the party and the country survived. The cynicism that motivates the Trump voter is not that different from the frustration that motivates those rallying around Sen. Bernie Sanders in the other party — a sense that politicians are more interested in their own than the public’s interests and a growing disdain for just the sort of transactional approach to principle that Mr. Biden articulated last week.

Messrs. Ryan and Biden were, of course, talking across each other. While it is only coincidence these two speeches were given within days of one another, they encapsulate perfectly the division that exists between politics and principle that prevents cooperation and ignites conflict on Capitol Hill. In a very real sense, Mr. Biden’s appeal is to the politics as usual crowd while Mr. Ryan at least made an attempt to move on, to appeal to what Lincoln once called the “better angels of our nature” in the hope that politicians might recover the civility and dedication that would allow them once again to be seen as public servants.

Peter Roff is a Washington writer who appears weekly on the One America News network.

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