In Utah's vote, a wake-up call for Washington

Scott Peterson, a volunteer for Sen. Bob Bennett's campaign, removes signs after Bennett lost the Utah GOP nomination on Saturday.
Scott Peterson, a volunteer for Sen. Bob Bennett's campaign, removes signs after Bennett lost the Utah GOP nomination on Saturday. (Steve C. Wilson/associated Press)
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By Tim Bridgewater
Friday, May 14, 2010

Last Saturday, delegates to the Utah Republican Party convention retired a three-term incumbent, Sen. Robert F. Bennett. With so many people jumping to conclusions, I'd like to explore what that vote -- in which I finished first, with 57 percent -- means.

On a philosophical level, I think it was a call to return to a higher standard, to a view of the nation that used to and could once again prevail.

Much has been made of the Tea Party movement and its impact in Utah. The original Tea Party, in 1773, was a rejection of a government too far away, too detached and insufficiently attuned to what was happening in this country. It led directly to the formation of "committees of correspondence" in the 13 colonies.

In 1787, the Founding Fathers crafted a free system of government built on the principle that individuals have God-given rights. The Founders protected those rights with the horizontal separation of powers among the three branches of government and, most important, by a vertical separation of powers between the federal government and the states. The national government would manage external affairs and keep the states on a level playing field; state governments were to do the rest.

Over time, that vertical separation of powers has almost disappeared. Today, the federal government feels it can manage even the details of personal health care and education. States have been relegated to administrative units of a central leviathan, in a system of plunder in which each state tries to live at the expense of the others.

In such a system, experience in Washington is valuable. But Utah Republicans rejected that model of governance and so rejected the Washington veteran. The delegates seek a return to the earlier system, with Washington supreme in its limited fields (as enumerated in the Constitution) and the states responsible for the rest. I believe that not just in Utah but across the country, primary and general election voters will prefer the older model.

Today, individuals nationwide are looking closely at the documents that led to and came out of our founding and comparing them to what they see around them. The Founders, of course, were much better read in the philosophy of government and the history of nations than most of those in Washington today who are trying to instruct the poor rubes in the states in the art of statecraft.

On a practical level, I think Saturday's results reflected voters' fear that Washington cannot control its spending. Bob Bennett, for all his considerable merits, was simply too comfortable in a Washington that routinely ignores those concerns and resorts to spending whenever there is a problem.

The Permanent Ruling Class in Washington tells us that Congress is capable of managing the fast-growing telecommunications industry, that it knows how credit should be allocated and that it has the expertise to decide which financial institutions are too big, which are too small and which are "just right."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington's track record stinks. Congress has given us more than $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare. Lawmakers encouraged a housing bubble and then took hundreds of billions of dollars from taxpayers when it burst. There is no reason to think Congress can do a better job this time than when it tried to manage energy in the 1970s and '80s.

Health care is perhaps the worst example, passed as it was over the people's clear opposition, with next to no input from the opposition party, in violation of Congress's own rules on comity, notice and transparency! That health-care vote epitomizes the centralized approach that is loading ever more burdens on an overtaxed economic system, crushing America's entrepreneurial spirit.

Is it any wonder the people are looking for new solutions or seeking to revert to a system that worked pretty well for the first 200 years of our national existence? Maybe the Founders were on to something, and we ought to pull back at the federal level and let the states do the work they are capable of doing.

Yes, in some instances, there has been justification for federal action to curtail the power of the states or to act in the face of state impotence, such as on slavery or civil rights. But that does not mean Washington knows how much salt I should consume or where a road should run down the west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

On Saturday, Utah's delegates said that it is time for a little humility in Washington. It is time for recognition that considerable wisdom exists in "fly-over country," and that even when we're wrong, we want to be left alone to make our own mistakes. If we screw up in Utah, that won't hurt Virginia, but if Washington screws up (and there is ample reason to think it will), we all suffer.

The Founders left us a better way. Let's give it a try.

The writer, a Republican, is a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Utah.

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