Commentary

October 19, 2012

JOSEPH R. REISERT: 'Play by the same rules'? Obama got his philosophy backward

Joseph R. Reisert

In Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama framed the election as a choice between two philosophies of government.

Barack Obama
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Carolyn Kaster

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"I believe," he said, that "everybody should play by the same rules." And he accused Mitt Romney of holding the opposite philosophy: "to make sure the folks at the top play by a different set of rules."

Obama's rhetorical contrast has it exactly backward.

Obama may talk about making everybody play by the same rules, but that's not what he's done as president. And that record is exactly what we should expect from someone who believes in a big, activist government that aims to compel us "forward."

Consider the bailout of GM and Chrysler, on which the American people stand to lose north of $20 billion. Did Obama make those firms "play by the same rules" as everybody else? Hardly.

When companies go broke, the law allows them to declare bankruptcy, which gives them some protection from creditors and time to reorganize and re-emerge as more competitive enterprises. Such reorganizations happen every day, and the financially viable parts of GM and Chrysler surely would have re-emerged from bankruptcy as ongoing, profitable businesses.

Under bankruptcy law, creditors with like claims get treated alike. But that's not what happened with GM and Chrysler. Instead, the administration "managed" the bankruptcy processes and decided whose debts got paid and whose didn't, and it used public funds to provide subsidies to these two, then-private companies.

Who benefited the most from this bending of the law? The United Auto Workers, who reaped a munificent reward for their loyal support of the Democratic Party.

Consider the policy of subsidizing "green energy," another policy the president spotlighted on Tuesday. At bottom, it is a policy of taking money from all of us and giving it to private firms whose leading investors -- and the principal beneficiaries of government money -- are generally wealthy.

Worse still, such subsidies have a way of going to political friends.

The failed solar start-up, Solyndra, is the most notorious example of a company with political ties to the administration being awarded federal support. It lost the taxpayers "only" around $500 million.

Now consider the other side of the president's progressive activism -- his agenda to expand the scope of government rules and regulations, in order to better protect us from ourselves.

The rapid growth of federal regulation would be bad enough if the new rules were applied fairly and predictably; in that case, they would impose relatively equal compliance costs on everyone and be "only" a general drag on economic growth.

But the web of regulations has been growing so dense that firms and even the state governments have found themselves unable to comply with them all. So they ask for "waivers" -- special exemptions from this or that requirement of this or that law, granted at the discretion of the president.

Your firm can't comply with the minutiae of the Affordable Care Act? Get a waiver. The administration granted more than 1,200 of these. Your state can't comply with the demands of No Child Left Behind? Get a waiver. Your state doesn't want to make welfare beneficiaries work? Get a waiver -- a special rule just for you!

President Obama's confidence in the rightness of his own policy judgments and his disregard for his constitutional duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" extends so far that he's decided he's not going to enforce provisions of our immigration law that are unpopular with a demographic group whose support he's desperate to win.

Everywhere we turn, we see the same pattern: under Obama's administration, the rules don't apply to everyone. There's one set of rules for political supporters and the favored few, and another for the rest of us.

Standing up for the average person against well-connected elites has been a staple of Democratic political rhetoric since the presidency of Andrew Jackson. But Jackson understood, as Obama does not, that only a small and limited government can actually treat everyone impartially.

Romney gets it.

That's why he wants a simpler tax code and less regulation, freer and fairer markets, why he wants to simplify and streamline the federal bureaucracy.

What evidence does Obama offer to the contrary?

Vague slurs about Romney's business career, and a sneering reference to the fact that Romney thought it was fair that he paid taxes, at rates signed into law by Obama himself. Ignore the rhetoric. Consider the president's actual record. Vote accordingly.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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