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Jewish World Review August 4, 2003 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5763

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Political thugs | "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness."

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald,

"The Great Gatsby"

In this season of vast public carelessness, political Toms and Daisys are trashing civic life, making messes and moving on. And there are no large ideas commensurate with, and capable of at least explaining, the institutional damage being done.

In Texas last week, Democratic legislators left the state for a second time in 11 weeks. They fled -- this time to New Mexico; last time to Oklahoma -- to prevent a legislative quorum. Republican legislators want to draw new legislative district lines for the second time since the 2000 census, a mischievous idea already acted on by Colorado Republicans.

This aggression -- which Democrats will feel free to emulate when next they have a majority -- shreds a settled practice that limits to once after each census the bruising business of seeking political advantage through redistricting. Defenders of the Republicans say they are breaking no law -- that the once-a-decade practice is only a custom.

But many of the practices that reduce the friction of life are "only" customs. And when the cake of custom crumbles -- it is much easier to break than to bake that cake -- it is replaced either by yet more laws codifying behavior that should be regulated by good manners or by a permanent increase in society's level of ongoing aggression.

Texas Republicans sought the help of the federal Department of Homeland Security in finding the Democratic emigres in Oklahoma. New Mexico state police guarded their hotel because the Democrats said they thought "bounty hunters" might try to drag them back to Texas.

Nothing this undignified has happened in American politics for, well, two weeks. Not since some congressional Republicans called the Capitol Police -- who called the sergeant at arms -- to expel Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee from a House library, where they went to protest the Republicans' demand for action on a 90-page bill the Democrats had not had a chance to read.

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Told by a Republican to "shut up," a senior Democrat called the Republican a "wimp" and "fruitcake." That probably is better than being called "irrelevant," which is what Nevada's governor called the Nevada Legislature before making it so.

He asked the state Supreme Court to order what the Legislature would not enact: a tax increase, the largest in Nevada's history, to solve a budget problem. The court obligingly did so, reasoning that the state Constitution's requirement of a two-thirds majority for passing tax increases is merely "procedural" and therefore is somehow trumped by the Constitution's "substantive" requirement that the state fund education, which the budget dispute has delayed. The Legislature tugged its forelock and passed an increase by a two-thirds majority.

The Illinois Supreme Court just ordered the state to give all judges, including Supreme Court justices, a raise. Budget difficulties caused the governor to veto a cost-of-living adjustment for judges. The Supreme Court says this violates the Constitution's requirement that judges' salaries shall "not be diminished."

There was no lawsuit filed or hearing held. Just a judicial fiat. The Supreme Court's position -- that denial of a COLA is a diminishment of pay, and a veto cannot vitiate a 1990 resolution requiring COLAs for judges -- is arguable.

But is it seemly to argue it during painful budget cuts needed to close a $5 billion deficit? Last Thursday considerations of taste, or perhaps just prudence, caused the court to retreat, vacating its order and allowing a trial court to decide the question.

Political incivility feeds on itself. The attempt to recall California Gov. Gray Davis will encourage the idea that elections settle nothing -- campaigning is permanent and ubiquitous.

A dialectic of aggression and retaliation began with the defeat in 1987 of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Democrats established the principle that the custom of broad deference to presidential choices would be superseded by political tests of strength over nominees' philosophies. Hence today's confirmation acrimony. Last week Democrats said yet another nomination would be filibustered.

Life has been called a series of habits disturbed by a few thoughts. Civil society is kept civil by certain habits of restraint. Inflammatory political ideas can overturn habits, sometimes for the better, usually not. But no discernible ideas, at least none that are more than appetites tarted up as ideas, account for the vandalism by political overreachers of both parties.

Each vandal seems to think that his or her passions are their own excuse for existing. As Santayana said, such thinking is the defining trait of barbarians.

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