While my partisan and ideological feelings have not changed with my retirement, my role has. I accept willingly the responsibility as a columnist to temper my advocacy with more neutral commentary.

Since I wrote critically last week about the Republican response to the economic successes America has had since President Obama came into office, I had intended to follow with a series on how our security agencies should respond to the challenges they face. But the Republicans’ reaction to the president’s State of the Union speech was so glaringly inconsistent with their own recent behavior that I could not resist writing about it.

There is one mitigating factor. What I am about to describe as Republican hypocrisy is not a practice in any way unique to that party, but an unfortunate tendency of almost everybody who argues controversial political issues.

That tendency is to avoid defending your policy preferences on their merits and instead invoke some neutral principle by which your opponents can be discredited. It challenges your opposition’s right to make arguments without having to deal with whether or not they are accurate or morally compelling.

The best current example of this is the argument by many Republicans that the president was wrong in the State of the Union to advocate policies aimed at a very specific way at diminishing the growing economic inequality.

Rather than argue the merits of a tax policy that favors the wealthy on the grounds that this will generate more income for all of us – a very hard one to make in a light of recent history – Republicans criticized the president for advocating his own policy preferences in that speech. “We won the last election decisively,” they accurately noted, “and it is therefore a violation of democratic norms for the president to push for policies which are opposite to those preferred by the people who won the midterm elections.”

The notion that officials who are serving the terms for which they are elected are disrespecting democracy when they resist changing their views to accommodate those more recent winners is bad democratic theory and completely misunderstands the American constitutional scheme. That document provides staggered terms for those running our government. Presidents have four years, senators six and representatives two. The very purpose of that was to prevent any one group from accreting sufficient power after any one election to enact its preferred policies. It is one aspect of a theory known as “checks and balances” that I thought Republicans understood better than they seem to.

The advantage of arguing that the president had no right to propose measures that he believes will reduce excessive inequality is that you do not have to explain why you think they are wrong. This is especially helpful for the Republicans today because there is an increasing recognition across the political spectrum that a situation in which Americas economy grows better than any other in the developed world but sees the benefits of that unequally distributed, excluding the great majority of citizens, is politically untenable.

Republicans do not have to say that a change in the tax code that ends a loophole for very wealthy individuals and transfers some of those benefits to working people is wrong. They simply insist that a president whose party did badly in the last election has no right to advocate for it. Given the wide popularity of increasing the minimum wage – which even Mitt Romney now supports – this averts the need to explain why paying working people only $8 an hour should be acceptable.

In addition to misunderstanding the way in which our democracy is intended to work, this assertion wholly contradicts the Republicans behavior of 2009.

Not only did Obama win decisively in 2008, Democrats in 2009 had more senators and representatives than the Republicans do today.

If the current Republican view of the obligation of those who have seen the opposite party win decisively in the previous election was something they genuinely believed, their response in 2009 would have been to offer cooperation with the newly entrenched solid Democratic majorities. Instead, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s announced goal was simply to defeat Obama for re-election. On the major issues facing the 2009-2010 Congress, Republicans were overwhelmingly united in opposition to every Democratic proposal.

The notion that the Democrats had earned the right to have these adopted with some compromise had very few Republican supporters. Financial reform passed with only three Republican yeses in the Senate, and three in the House. Health care was unanimously opposed by Republicans. Even the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to which Republicans offered some support, was passed only because overwhelming Democratic majorities outvoted Republican opponents.

The session began with an economic stimulus bill that also was passed by a completely partisan vote in the House – unlike the stimulus that President Bush had asked for only the year before, which was supported by the Democratic majority at that time. (Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were two of the three Republicans to vote for the Obama stimulus.)

The notion that because one party has won the most recent election the opposition has some obligation to abandon its own principles and facilitate the adoption of the victorious party’s platform has no support either in Democratic theory, American constitutional practice or previous Republican doctrine.

I understand why Republicans find it difficult to oppose the measures that the president put forward in the State of the Union that would make America a less unfair society economically. A few years ago they might have argued that this would damage our economic progress, but in light of the great success that we have seen with regard to overall economic growth under similar policies in the past five years, they can no longer do that.

I acknowledge that this adoption of a bogus procedural argument in preference to engaging in substantive debate is by no means a Republican monopoly. Many of my Democratic colleagues have made similar efforts in the past to avoid debating the merits when we have understood that we were on the unpopular side.

But having refused to engage in that practice then, I feel fully entitled to note today that the Republicans’ unwillingness to justify their opposition to raising the minimum wage, making the tax code fairer or extending the right to go to community college is an acknowledgment of their understanding of the unpopularity of their positions and is in no way justified by the fact that they won the last election.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

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