The Magazine

The Last Redoubt

Republican attorneys general: the unsung heroes in challenging the Obama agenda

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Can you name the attorney general of your state? I’m betting most folks can’t. There’s a reason. Campaigns for attorney general get scant media attention, causing voters to ignore down-ballot races. This is unfortunate, especially if you reside in a red state. Because in the past few years Republican attorneys general have become a growing force in national affairs. They’re not quite a conservative juggernaut, but they’re headed that way.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

Practically no one has noticed the emergence of the Republican AGs. Yet they’re a scourge of President Obama. They drive the Environmental Protection Agency crazy. They’ve beaten the best lawyers at the Justice Department numerous times. “What I really do for fun is I go into the office [and] I sue the Obama administration,” Texas attorney general Greg Abbott said last year. He’s filed 30 lawsuits against the administration, 17 against EPA alone—with considerable success.

The AGs, who often attack the administration in packs, have done more than Republicans in Congress, statehouses, or anywhere else to block, cripple, undermine, or weaken Obama’s initiatives. They failed to stop Obamacare in the Supreme Court, but won limits on Medicaid and neutralized the use of the commerce clause to expand the reach of the federal government. And there’s one case left. AG Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma has sued to prevent Obama-run health insurance exchanges from handing out subsidies. If he wins—and he has a credible case—the implementation of Obamacare will come to a halt, at least temporarily.

In effect, the administration has been put on notice: If you adopt policies inconsistent with constitutional limits and the rule of law, Republican attorneys general will come after you. “We have a network and we’re always on alert,” says Alabama AG Luther Strange. In Oklahoma, Pruitt has created a special federalism unit to track federal policies that may infringe on the authority of states. Obama “should know we’re not going to back down,” says Florida AG Pam Bondi. 

The Obamacare suits are the best-known challenge to the president’s agenda, but not the only important one. The attorneys general—that’s the awkward but proper plural—blocked EPA from overreaching on water and air pollution enforcement. They forced federal mining authorities to abandon an effort to seize control of mining permits from state authorities. They intervened on behalf of Boeing to halt the National Labor Relations Board from barring the airline manufacturer from assembling 787s in South Carolina, a right-to-work state.

In all these cases, their target was the same, the Obama administration. The AGs are committed—“ruthlessly committed” is how Pruitt puts it—to obstructing the expansion of the federal government at the expense of the states. They are champions of federalism, the Tenth Amendment, states’ rights, and a defanged federal government.

Alan Wilson, South Carolina’s attorney general, draws on the 1958 movie The Blob to describe the enemy:

It comes from outer space, lands in the woods, and it’s the size of an orange or cantaloupe. By the end of the movie, what happens is it’s enveloping diners and houses. As the blob rolls along eating folks, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And it never got smaller. It consumed more and more. And that’s how I kind of see the federal government. Instead of eating people and diners, it’s eating our liberty. I’m not against the government. I’m against this ever-expanding government that doesn’t know its limits. And that’s how I see the role of the attorney general, as someone in an office that can protect you and defend the Constitution and defend state sovereignty and our individual liberty.

Republican AGs regard themselves as “the last line of defense” against Washington and its blob-like tendency to grow. It’s a conceit, but a defensible one. Thus the new book by Virginia’s hyperactive AG, Ken Cuccinelli, is titled The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty. Cuccinelli says the levels of resistance to a power-hungry federal government work this way: first Congress, then the president, next the “regulatory arena,” and “then it’s up to the states.” What if the state AGs fail? “Then we’re stuck,” Cuccinelli told me. In the end, says AG Sam Olens of Georgia, “it’s us or no one.”

Recent Blog Posts