12/07/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

The Means Are All Important

It is better to follow the rules and lose, than to cheat and win.

Professional boxing forgot this dictum, and it has almost killed the sport. Boxing was once one of the most popular sports in the United States. The heavyweight champion was an internationally recognized and respected celebrity. Prize fights were regularly shown on national television, and championship bouts were prime-time fare. But over time, the people running the sport became more interested in short-term gains than in the long-term health of the sport. Boxing matches moved from network television to Pay-Per-View, drawing increased revenue for any particular fight but reducing fan access to the sport. Corruption was allowed to reach the highest levels, netting huge financial rewards for individuals but undermining the public belief that the sport was legitimate. The people who ran boxing started putting the outcome of any particular match (who won and who made money) ahead of the integrity of the sport -- which is why boxing, a sport that was once second to none, is now less popular than Mixed Martial Arts.

The same lesson applies to politics -- and not just in matters of corruption. Politicians, pundits and voters all believe passionately in certain ideas. And in most cases, those ideas are important. Government makes decisions that affect the wallets of every American, and in many cases can have a direct impact on the direction of our very lives. It matters what decisions that our government makes and who gets to make them. Even so, election outcomes and government policies do not matter nearly as much as the basic rules of our Constitution.

But the temptation to cheat can be overwhelming.

We saw this temptation play itself out during the last election cycle, when right-leaning election officials used their power to explicitly make voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning voting blocs. In Ohio the Secretary of State fought to limit early voting hours, apparently in an effort to diminish Democratic turnout. In Florida, Republican officials cut back on early voting hours in an explicit attempt to eliminate voting on the Sunday before Election Day -- a day when many African Americans had previously gone to vote. Preventing people from voting simply because they disagree with you undermines the basic principles of democratic governance.

Think about the long-term consequences if this behavior becomes the norm. Parties are supposed to compete for votes. If they instead compete to stifle the vote, our country quickly ceases to be democratic at all. Elections are meaningless if the winners are predetermined by election officials.

The problem is that in the heat of an election campaign, in the midst of the rhetoric about the importance of the decision being made, and surrounded by innumerable reminders of the dangers of electing the wrong person, cheating can be very easy to justify. Many people who work for campaigns believe that they are fighting for the side of the good and the right. They believe America really will be better off in a very fundamental way if their candidate wins. When held against that, what is the harm in a few inconvenienced voters?

Except there is a reason that cheating is bad. This is what the people who ran boxing forgot. They set out to maximize their own short-term gain, and figured that the sport was so popular it wouldn't matter. And for a while they were right. But eventually, that cheating corroded the foundation of boxing, to the point that championship bouts are lucky if they even get mentioned on SportsCenter at all.

To apply that lesson to politics, it means that even if Obama actually were a Kenyan Muslim Socialist, it would still be better to elect him as president fairly than to deny him victory by cheating.

Of course, such temptations to cheat for the short-term "good of the country" are not just limited to the Right. During the 2010 debt-ceiling negotiations, Democrats urged President Obama to avoid any unpleasant compromises on the budget by unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, effectively doing an end-run around Article I of the Constitution. Article I explicitly says that all bills to raise revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, and gives Congress sole power to "borrow money on the credit of the United States." (Stacked against this is the flimsy legal justification of a poorly worded clause in the 14th Amendment promising repayment of Union Civil War debts.) If Obama were to borrow money without congressional approval, then that would be an overt violation of the most basic principles of constitutional separation of powers -- that Congress has the ultimate power over government because it controls the flow of money. Now that Obama is negotiating the fiscal cliff, there are some on the Left who are once again urging President Obama to flaunt the Constitutional limits of his powers "for the good of the country."

But this logic is no better than the Republican logic of limiting voting hours to improve the chances of Obama's electoral defeat. Yes, the Democrats believe that it is in the good of the country -- but so did the Ohio and Florida election officials who set about disenfranchising voters. n a democracy, you must play by the rules, no matter how inconvenient those rules might be.

Yes, I realize that no individual electoral shenanigan is going to destroy our electoral system, and that no particular unconstitutional presidential overreach is going to destroy American government. But remember, no particular act of corruption destroyed boxing either. The danger is when corruption and cheating become acceptable behavior. And as for those who would say that it is the job of the courts to protect the Constitution, I would respond that it is the duty of all citizens to protect the Constitution, and the judges are just as fallible as the rest of us. I hope that the Supreme Court would do the right thing, but I think we can all agree that the Court is far from perfect. We, as citizens, have the power to pressure our leaders to compromise, and to pressure Obama to back off his Fourteenth Amendment threat, now -- so let's use it.

Good intentions do not justify destructive behavior. And ultimately, if allowed to continue unchecked and unabated, cheating destroys. And that is truly intolerable.