Commentary

Left-Wing Demagoguery

Only in Washington could a Republican win the presidency and Democrats expect to select the Cabinet. At least, that seems to be the attitude of the left, which is opposing George Bush’s nominees who represent philosophical Republicanism at its best.

Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez went down because she offered shelter to an abused woman who happened to be an illegal alien. Hopefully, a few Democrats are sleeping more uncomfortably knowing that their attacks have fueled the very anti-immigrant sentiments they regularly criticize.

John Ashcroft faces opposition as potential attorney general because he doesn’t believe that judges should rule the country, the unborn are worthy of protection and a free people has a right to the means to defend itself. These are sentiments with a curious similarity to those of the nation’s founders.

Then, there is Gale Norton, Bush’s nominee for interior secretary. Young, bright, and experienced, she may be Bush’s most enlightened choice. But, she believes that Washington is not the fount of all environmental wisdom, a shocking sentiment to the left-wingers who have been in power for the last eight years. Norton is not an easy target. Although only 46, she served two terms as the elected attorney general of Colorado, before losing a primary race for the GOP Senate nomination.

A committed free marketeer, she is nevertheless pro-abortion in contrast to Ashcroft. And, before moving to Colorado, she worked on environmental policy at a public interest law firm and the Interior Department. Her left-wing opponents naturally pose as defenders of the environment, but they would prefer to smear her than debate issues.

Their silliest attack has been based on a 1996 speech that she delivered to the Independence Institute, a Denver-based think tank. Norton lamented the loss of state authority in the Civil War. She noted that ”we certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery,” an obvious sentiment for anyone who believes in liberty.

The benefit of the federal principle sharing and spreading government power among states and localities rather than concentrating it at the national level is evident from the disastrous mess spawned in Washington. Today, Uncle Sam gives us confiscatory tax policies, ludicrous spending priorities, unrealistic regulatory burdens and counterproductive welfare programs. The result is public disillusionment with unresponsive political elites unconcerned about popular frustrations and intent on ruling irrespective of popular sentiment.

And, it was the Civil War that transformed the Constitution and established national supremacy. The result, a conflict that killed more than 600,000 people, devastated much of the country, and set the federal government on its course of imperious domination, proved to be a disaster for individual liberty. Other than for the freed men, the very point made by Norton. The cause of states’ rights ultimately, if imperfectly, advances individual rights.

The problem with the Confederacy was that it sabotaged the fight against central authority by linking it to the hideous institution of slavery. Not that national power was an ally of the enslaved. At that time, the central government, including newly elected President Abraham Lincoln and most congressmen, backed slavery; the institution’s death was an inadvertent result of the Civil War.

But, Norton’s environmentalist critics don’t care about the facts. Kennedy Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, charged that ”her deeply divisive remarks suggest she lacks a vital instinct to protect what needs protecting, whether it’s wilderness or the rights of people of color.” Cook would probably have said the same had Norton endorsed motherhood and apple pie.

He certainly wasn’t going to seriously address her thoughtful attempt to draw philosophical lessons from history. Just play the race card, hint that maybe Norton likes slavery, and see if the demagogic spark ignites a political fire. It is the same shameless, tiresome game played over and over by the left. The real issue is centralized environmental decision-making.

Cook & Co. fear federalism because it means different people in different regions can make different decisions. Given their druthers, residents of Los Angeles might accept different standards of air quality than people in Utah. Citizens of Washington might strike a different balance among logging, recreation and preservation in their forests than might residents of Connecticut.

The notion that people should be able to exercise choice about their own futures bothers the authoritarians who dominate the environmental movement. So, the Cooks of the world do their best to seize control of the levers of central power and impose their will on 280 million Americans. Stand in their way and you obviously are a closet racist.

Gale Norton is a woman of integrity. She is smart and competent. And, she believes in federalism, limited government and individual liberty. Which is why the left hates her so. And why she should be speedily confirmed.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.