Needed: Vision

April 21, 2002

by John K. Bates

Apparently Middle Eastern policy - where President Bush is being lambasted for repeat about-faces towards Israel and his coddling of master terrorist Yasser Arafat - is not the only area where the Bush administration appears to be adrift. Consider two stories from the past week that spell out the administration’s policy towards the 10th Amendment and the principle of states’ rights.

In the type of photo-op ceremony the politicians love, President Bush on Tuesday announced his support for a constitutional amendment to guarantee universal legal rights to victims of violent crime. Citing purely anecdotal evidence of a couple of people who have been hurt by the system, the president believes that although many states have such guarantees in place, they are uneven and unequally enforced. With the same reasoning liberals use when proposing all sorts of federal programs, the president believes only the federal government is able to guarantee these rights, and therefore what is deemed “universal” should be included in the highest document in the land.

There is something good to be said for this. Agree or not with the provisions of the victims’ rights amendment (and this writer stridently disagrees with the proposed change, finding it unnecessary and little more than political grandstanding), how its supporters seek to get it passed is precisely correct. Our system of federalism is supposed to give wide latitude to the states. If some states want to give less, or more, attention to “victims’ rights,” that is their prerogative. The only proper way to change things, alas, is to codify the changes in the Constitution.

Too often, this has not been the case in the past 60 years. Those who disagree with how the states run things, and especially those who think them no better than the poor backwards people in flyover country, constantly seek to get things their way by either fabricating rights out of thin air (abortion is the best example) or by blackmailing those states with federal funding (seat belt laws, drinking laws, etc.). Even if Bush did so purely to get a feel-good photo-op and to appear to be on the side of victims whom have seen criminals given too much consideration, he ended up on the side of traditional conservatism and federalism. For this the president deserves praise.

The very next day, however, brought a story showing the Bush administration on precisely the wrong side of the same issue. A federal judge ruled that Bush’s Justice Department was wrong when it tried to overturn Oregon’s assisted suicide law. Judge Robert Jones commendably recognized that the Bush administration was seeking to “stifle an ongoing, earnest, and profound debate in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide.” By putting the kibosh on this misguided meddling, Judge Jones ensured that the debate would continue.

This writer completely and vehemently disagrees with assisted suicide. It is wrong in many respects, not the least of which is that it will further cheapen the value of life which already is under fierce attack by abortion, popular culture and the upcoming debate on cloning and genetic manipulation. Furthermore, the example of the Netherlands should be a chilling warning to those who think that Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act” will remain a completely voluntary exercise. Several studies show that a sizable percentage of those killed under the Dutch assisted suicide law were put to death non-voluntarily. It is inevitable that no matter what safeguards and controls are put in place in Oregon and elsewhere, people will die at the behest and for the convenience of others and against their will. Doctors will become protectors of life and deliverers of death. This is simply too great a risk to condone.

That said, the Constitution of the United States was set up specifically to allow states the freedom to debate and resolve thorny issues such as this (and abortion, an issue custom made for the 10th Amendment). The entire point of federalism was to acknowledge that a “one-size-fits-all” federal system does not work for anyone but a few elite in the seats of power. Except for fundamental rights, the states are given the power to resolve every other issue of importance. Some states will choose one way; some will choose another. But this is how society maintains a balance. States will ultimately reflect the will of the people that live in them, and since people are different, the states will have different solutions. This is normal and healthy. The Founders, as with most things, knew what they were doing.

Which is why the Bush administration’s decision to fight the Oregon law is reprehensible. Like it or not, Oregon’s assisted suicide law is a proper law for the people of a state to pass. It is not the purview of the federal government to step in and tell the people of Oregon how to behave. That is the same drivel that liberals have told states for years while foisting upon feel-good policy after feel-good policy. It is no more right when Republicans do it to the states. The federal government should leave the states be and, right or wrong, let them make up their own minds and fight their own battles.

One has to begin to wonder what is going on in the White House. On the one hand, the Bushies stand up for what is right and defend the Constitution. On the other, they run roughshod over constitutional principles and betray the very concept of federalism that the Constitution is based upon. There is no consistency, no rhyme or reason, no overall plan and no guiding philosophy.

There is no vision, and that is the problem. Like with Middle Eastern policy, the Bush team seems to be driven not by an overall principle of guidance, but by a sense of political expediency. How else to explain supporting the Constitution in one area of policy and disregarding it in another? The only way that really does explain it is just that: political expediency. In one instance (the victims’ rights act) it is not politically practical to overturn 50 states while in another (Oregon) it is easy to go after one state.

It’s also easier to support a constitutional amendment and dress up for a photo-op and trot out a couple of victims (a Clintonian tactic if there ever was) than it is to make a case in 50 state legislatures that their policy is wrong. And it is much easier to take a shot in court at overturning a law that one does not like than it is to work through either the state legislative process or the constitutional process to affect change. As with so many other areas of policy, Bush seems to be taking the middle-of-the-road, politically easy way out. His focus is on focus groups, polls, and the next election. It should be on the Constitution and on the principle of smaller government in which he claims to believe.

One of the chief criticisms of the Reagan administration was that there was too much internal bickering and infighting. Especially with foreign policy, George Shultz and Cap Weinberger were constantly feuding both privately and in the press. Yet despite this bickering, Reagan policy was for the most part on a consistent path towards the goal of American dominance over what was the “Evil Empire.” Bush has the same problem, with major differences between Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld causing schisms in policy. The difference is that Bush is not Reagan. Reagan knew what he wanted, knew what the country elected him to do, and knew that his policies were more important than focus groups, polls, or the New York Times. Reagan allowed everyone his or her say, and then made the decision. Sometimes he would agree with one person, sometimes with another. Sometimes he split it down the middle. But all decisions were made based on his overall vision.

President Bush would do well to read some of Reagan’s memoirs and especially some of the books that have been published by people involved in that process (Jay Winik’s On The Brink is excellent). More than this, however, Bush must find a vision, a guiding principle the goes beyond polling data and the 2004 election. America at this time in her history needs a strong vision and a good plan. It’s time for Mr. Bush to find one.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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