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That Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign has gone nowhere tells us that some candidates are just too goofy even for a party gone full goofy. That such an oddball got over four million votes in a Texas Senate race can't help but bring to mind Winston Churchill's alleged comment that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter (maybe now amended to a five-minute conversation with 48 percent of Texas voters).

Or maybe all it takes is having Ted Cruz as your opponent.

That said, O'Rourke's misbegotten campaign has also become the most interesting one among the Democrats because he is saying things that he apparently believes many Democrats believe but are afraid to say. As the editors of National Review put it, "O'Rourke's presidential campaign is within the margin of error of non-existence, but in his failure he has found a purpose: expressing the Democratic id."

Struggling candidates tend to say outrageous things to attract attention on the assumption that it is the lack of attention that explains their struggles, but in the outrageous can also be found clues as to what the party base truly, deep down, wants (or at least what the struggling candidate thinks it wants, in unvarnished form).

Beto's latest foray into such territory (following his "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15s") was his pledge at an LGBTQ town hall to revoke the tax-exempt status of any churches that oppose same-sex marriage.

The problems with such a proposal are so numerous and obvious as to suggest anyone who can't see them has a problem.

First, it would constitute the use of state power to punish private organizations (in this case churches) for their political views, thereby directly violating both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment and reducing Edmund Burke's "little platoons" of civil society to docile instruments of the state. Churches that played along would be favored; those that didn't would be punished.

By granting Caesar the power to obliterate God in such a fashion, such a proposal would erode that metaphorical wall between church and state to a greater extent than anything proposed in recent years by religious conservatives. Indeed, it was precisely to prevent such a threat to religious freedom that the religious clause was inserted in the First Amendment by the founders.

As law professor Eugene Volokh noted in recent testimony before Congress, "There is no constitutional right to a tax exemption, but there is a constitutional right not to be discriminated [against] based on viewpoint in the grant or denial of a tax exemption."

Second, by suggesting that government should use the tax power to selectively punish private organizations that express views of which liberals disapprove, O'Rourke openly advocates doing what the Obama administration was accused of but denied doing (using the IRS to go after conservative groups). That such a power could also be used by a future Republican administration to punish liberal organizations apparently never occurs to the deep-thinking O'Rourke.

In the words of Jordan Weissmann, writing in Slate, O'Rourke's position is "tantamount to declaring war on Catholic parishes and evangelical congregations across the country, not to mention any number of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim groups." For Weissmann, O'Rourke "is turning himself into a walking strawman, the non-fringe guy Republicans can reliably point to when they want to say, 'See, the libs really do want to take your guns and shut down your churches'."

In short, by embracing the kinds of radical positions that conservatives have always suspected liberals of harboring, O'Rourke threatens to turn caricature into reality and provide a vision of where the Democratic Party would like to take the country if not inhibited by constitutional constraints and considerations of electoral viability.

A ratchet effect must be considered in all of this as well, meaning the way in which ideas that seem well outside the mainstream tend to quickly become orthodoxy on the left, with no dissent allowed.

There is no better example of this than the LGBTQ movement itself--in a remarkably short period of time we went from arguing for consenting adults to do as they wish in the privacy of their bedrooms to civil unions and Supreme Court identification of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, after which has come legal punishments for Christian bakers who refused to bake cakes for gay marriages and accusations of bigotry directed at anyone who expresses reservations about allowing men wearing dresses to use women's bathrooms.

The point isn't whether such change is good or bad, but that it wouldn't be unreasonable for conservatives to believe that at each step along the way the left has a "next step" in mind while publicly disavowing such intentions.

It's possible of course that Beto O'Rourke is just a desperate doofus who can't stop apologizing for being white and not being gay; that his newly-acquired Bulworth radicalism actually resonates only with a tiny woke fraction of the Democratic electorate.

But it's also possible that, on issues like guns and religion and maybe more, he's saying what lots of Democrats are thinking. And will soon start saying.

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Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 10/21/2019

Print Headline: Strawman comes alive

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