Politics, at least the national level, is not much more than a treadmill of shenanigans perpetrated almost equally across party lines with members of each party goring each other’s oxen.

Someone attacks. Someone squeals.

Much of the current squealing about the passage of health care reform is humorous, particularly if you do not seriously believe the death threat stories, which I don’t.

If there were threats, we’d have to say we long for the old, old days when men were men – men who, when logic failed, resorted to pistols to settle political disputes. They weren’t cowards hiding anonymously behind threats.

About the only practice that has changed in Washington in the last 100 years is the reluctance of political combatants to resolve their differences with a good old-fashioned duel.

In 1804, Aaron Burr, then vice president of the United States, dispatched his former law partner, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. Burr remained in office – evidence, once again, that times have not changed.

So it seems that memories were short when Republicans cried “foul” over the Democrats’ plan to use the reconciliation rules to pass the health care bill. Reconciliation has been used before, and it’s been used by Republicans.

The bellicosity over special deals and favors handed out to those who agreed to vote for the bill is equally lame. Deals are made all the time in Washington and horse-trading for votes is a daily way of life.

The latest new/old idea to be raised is nullification.

At its most basic level, nullification is based on the notion that states’ rights trump those of the federal government.

Writing in Thursday’s Washington Post, op-ed columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. explained how we are now entering the nullification phase of this fight. He was writing about the challenge to the new law posed by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli:

“The Republican attorney general’s move reveals how far into the past America’s New Nullifiers want to push the nation. They don’t just want to abandon a seven-plus-decade understanding of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause that has allowed the federal government to regulate a modern, national economy. They also want to resurrect states’ rights doctrines discredited by President Andrew Jackson during the nullification crisis of the 1830s and buried by the Civil War.

“There are two issues here. One is whether the federal government can require individuals to buy health insurance. The other is the question of states’ rights. In a suit separate from Cuccinelli’s, 13 state attorneys general – 12 Republicans and a conservative Democrat from Louisiana – also challenged the mandate. But their main argument is that the federal government cannot force states to pay for an expanded Medicaid program and take other steps the law requires.”

While Dionne is correct that the last great nullification fight was over issues of slavery and occurred during the Jackson administration, the heavyweight in that fight was John C. Calhoun, who served as vice president to two presidents. He also served in the U.S. Senate and is ranked by many as one of the greatest senators in history.

Calhoun was so dedicated to the preservation of states’ rights that he often was called the “Arch Nullifier.”

His efforts on nullification and his fights on issues swirling around federal tariffs in the 1830s, along with those resulting from his pro-slavery views, were futile. The current efforts will fail as well.

But there will be other fights over the health care bill and other efforts to overturn it. When I wrote last week that I believed we should accept the bill’s passage and move on, I was not suggesting, as some readers thought, that opponents should give up.

They should not.

What I believe is this: Overturning or repealing this law will be difficult and it will take many, many years if it happens at all; by the time it might be repealed, the economic damage to the country will have been done.

And there will be thousands of jobs that were created in Washington, jobs such as those for the 16,000 new IRS agents who will be charged with policing the new law’s mandates that will never go away. The legacy costs will be punishing and prohibitive.

The Democrats who supported the bill and who are up for re-election in the fall may or may not be punished at the polls. It is too early to tell, although the signs are that their health care votes will affect their political careers.

Continued unemployment will spring back as a larger issue by fall, in my view.

So there is nothing really new about this fight. The issue and the resolution of it for now, universal health care coverage, is new. But the views many persons in the country have of health care reform are not much different from the views Calhoun held about laws he believed were out of step with most voters.

“The government of the absolute majority instead of the government of the people is but the government of the strongest interests; and when not efficiently checked, it is the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised,” Calhoun said more than a century ago.

There is ample polling evidence that the pro-health care votes in Congress do not match the sentiments of a majority of the public. And this is not new, either.

“A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power of the vast surplus in the banks,” Calhoun said.

It’s hard to argue that much has changed in politics, or that life in Washington is any different than it was in the 1800s – with the possible exception of “the vast surplus in the banks” – but even that may still be true. Many banks today appear to be keeping more than they are lending.

There is still some fun to be had watching all of this and listening to the complaints of those who lost this fight.

Remember their criticisms of the Democrats when the Republicans regain control of our government.


Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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