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A Main Street Republican Who Liberals Can Love

By Anthony F. Hall

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Liberals, even and especially liberal Republicans, were never fans of the Republican Senator from Ohio, Robert A. Taft (1889-1953). Here in upstate New York, he was disliked for attempting to deprive Governor Thomas Dewey of the party’s presidential nomination. He demonized Wall Street in order to champion Main Street, a view that won him few friends in the city. He never overcame his reputation as an isolationist, a position he abandoned only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, in today’s political climate, he would be regarded as a champion of liberal values. Taft was a constitutionalist, perhaps the last in American politics. He believed that every policy, whether foreign or domestic, should be judged by the extent to which it expands or limits the rights of individuals. According to that standard, Taft would have opposed President Trump’s January 27 executive order banning visitors from seven largely Muslim countries and placing limits on our refugee program. Among other things, the executive order appears to violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government’s establishment of religion as well as the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Taft would have been especially alarmed by Trump’s attempt to enlarge the executive’s powers at the expense of those of Congress in the area of foreign policy. An unrestrained power to respond to threats from abroad can lead easily to the abuse of that power, he concluded, noting, “If the President has arbitrary and unlimited power… there is an end to freedom in the United States.” The decision by the federal judge who blocked parts of Trump’s executive order to grant standing to the states challenging it would have had Taft’s approval. Taft never ceased urging state governments to assert their prerogatives and resist encroachments upon their powers by the federal government. He was less concerned about protecting states’ rights than he was about protecting a bulwark for the right to local, self-government. The habits of exercising responsibility for local communities had to be perpetuated, he believed, if Americans were to remain spirited enough to resist governmental infringements upon their rights. Taft’s last, great opponent in his fight to sustain the Constitution as a system of checks and balances was President Harry S. Truman, who in 1952 directed his Secretary of Commerce to seize the nation’s steel mills on the grounds that a national emergency existed. Taft declared, “The Constitution says nothing about national emergencies, and if the President could increase his powers by such a declaration, there would be nothing left to the limitations imposed by the Constitution.”

Robert A Taft

US Senator Robert A. Taft

The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Truman’s executive order was illegal. Truman complained, of course, calling the decision “crazy,” one that “tied up the country.” But he accepted the decision and deferred to the authority of courts. As the Economist magazine has noted, Trump’s predecessors in the White House “retreated… when checked. That is not an attitude that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric suggests he shares.” If he does not share that attitude, then the country will face, at some point in the next four years, a constitutional crisis of the sort that Taft sought to avert. It is unlikely that any Democrat in Congress will invoke Taft’s name or example, but for those who view politics through the prism of the Constitution, his principle that policies must be judged by their effects on the rights of ordinary Americans has much to recommend it. It’s one that should be embraced not only by liberal Democrats but by conservative Republicans as well, including, we believe, those who voted for Donald Trump.

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