A word of caution for elected officials

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, said that from both the right and left, “Whenever one side has power, they want to believe, they have a will to believe, that the public has validated every jot and tittle of their program.”

This kind of radicalism does not sell to the American population, he said.

Lowry spoke to students at The King’s College in New York City on Feb. 23, 2010, as part of the college’s Distinguished Visitor’s Series.

Lowry began to report on the Washington political scene as a new employee at National Review during the so-called Republican Revolution of the 1990s. However, he said, “It’s always a mistake to talk about the revolution in revolutionary terms.”

Lowry said that Republicans misinterpreted their electoral victory in 1994, comparing it to the debate being waged over health care, at the time of the interview. “People gave Republicans power to be a brake on Bill Clinton,” he said, as “a reaction against a Democratic president who governed in a way that was much more to the left than how he had campaigned.”

The resulting Contract with America and budget cuts pushed by Republicans were beyond the mandate of their election, however. In light of “a very public-spirited suicide charge,” Lowry said, Republicans “ended up significantly improving the balance sheet of the federal government, but they really eviscerated themselves in the course of doing it.”

In the end, Clinton won because Republicans “seemed to be the radicals who were willing to tear down the entire government structure in Washington,” he said.

Lowry says this radicalism will not sell to Americans. “Hubris is human nature,” he said. “Overreach is human nature.”

He connects the lesson of the Contract with America Republicans with today’s Democratic majority in Washington. He said, “People were rejecting George W. Bush. They were tired of Republicans.” For this reason, he said, “they wanted to give Democrats a chance.”

But giving the Democrats a chance does not mean giving them free rein. Lowry said the people elected President Obama “to change the direction in Washington slightly, to give us something different. Instead, he thought it was a historic mandate.” He “proceeded to govern on those terms.”

In the end, Lowry wants elected officials of both parties to be cautious in assuming a broad public mandate to enact their desired policies.

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