Mitt Romney did what only Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) had managed to do in the Palmetto Freedom Forum: resist the urge to take a constitutional lark that would have been a serious problem in a general-election setting.
Professor Robert George, one of the moderators, tried out his pet theory on all of the candidates: Because Article V of the 14th Amendment authorizes Congress to make laws to implement the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, Congress could pass a law overriding Roe v. Wade. For this proposition he (and others) like to quote Abraham Lincoln to the effect that we should not allow the Supreme Court to be our masters. Now, Lincoln was fighting to save the Union (and hence violated habeas corpus restrictions) and was, well, Lincoln. Moreover, it’s not clear that he was exhorting the elected branches not to follow the Supreme Court rulings; after all, the amendment process does give the states (and thereby the people) the final say.
With the exception of Paul and Romney, all the candidates went along with this academic exercise. But of course, for 200-plus years we’ve lived with the rule of law, allowed the court to interpret the Constitution and avoided constant constitutional crises. Richard Nixon didn’t ignore the Supreme Court ruling on the tapes. Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t ignore Brown v. Board of Education. And certainly George and others would have a fit if President Obama ignored a ruling holding ObamaCare unconstitutional.
The notion that we encourage elected officials to ignore the Supreme Court is folly. And frankly, it made all the pols who went along with it seem more than a little loony. When we say that each branch has the obligation to uphold the Constitution that means each should exercise self-restraint and evaluate the constitutionality of its actions before exercising its powers; it is not a license for lawlessness.
Romney patiently told George he wouldn’t go down the road of constitutional defiance. He would appoint judges who followed the language and intent of the Constitution. He specifically rejected the invitation to call for a constitutional standoff. It was a grown-up moment.
As for the rest of his performance, he was able to answer a series of questions on whether he’d repeal Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley and whether he’d privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He gave some of his best answers of the campaign, explaining how Sarbanes-Oxley killed the middle market of businesses, making it unduly onerous to go public. He got in a shot at the authors of Dodd-Frank, pointing out that they were in charge of regulating Fannie and Freddie and should have been the last people to draft financial regulation.
On foreign policy he was asked what he’d do differently from Obama: “I’d have one.” He then gave a discourse on projecting American power and chastised President Obama for “kicking Israel under the bus.”
Finally, he was asked to explain himself on RomneyCare. He rattled off what he’d say to Obama in a general-election debate: He didn’t raise taxes as Obama did. His bill addressed a narrow group of uninsured (he said it was 8 percent of the population), not the majority of citizens. He made the pitch that the individual mandate required personal responsibility instead of allowing citizens to rely on government if they got sick or injured. He was fortunate to have been the last candidate, for certainly one of his opponents would have taken him to task. There is no great answer to this question that would satisfy the conservative base, but he is getting more comfortable in delivering his defense.
All in all, it was a convincing performance. He was plainly the most expert on economic matters. How would he have matched up against Gov. Rick Perry? We don’t know, but Perry’s aides, if they are smart, are going through some basics on constitutional law with him. Had he been there it’s not clear he would have had the deftness to avoid the invitation to constitutional chaos. But he’s a fast learner and has some time before the next debate to practice some answers to reveal presidential-caliber maturity. As for Romney, he did about as well as he could, but Wednesday he’ll have to defend himself on the same stage with his rivals. We’ll see how he does then.