The images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during the 4th of July holiday are hard to escape, as celebrating American independence necessarily includes honoring two of the most prominent figures of the Revolution and Founding era. Yet, in my permanently politically-addled mind, when I look at Washington and Jefferson (who were by no means monolithic in their philosophy), I see two men who today would be considered near anarchists in their “extreme” views on the limited and minimal role of government; die-hard libertarians in their views on civil liberties and even recreational drug use; violent militia members given their opinions on secession, states’ rights and guns; religious fanatics, if not in their individual faith, their deference to the role of Christianity in public life; money “cranks” in their belief in hard money and opposition to central banking; and dangerous “isolationists” in their desire that their country avoid foreign “entangling alliances.”

But what do my fellow Americans likely think of when they ponder Washington and Jefferson? This is perhaps best answered by other images that typically accompany these figures: The American flag. Fireworks. The Statue of Liberty. Mt. Rushmore. Apple pie. Abraham Lincoln. Aircraft carriers. Capitol Hill.

Most Americans simply don’t get bogged down in the philosophical minutiae of the Founders’ vision when celebrating the Fourth of July. To the extent that they might think about the holiday’s meaning, Americans likely see a timeline from 1776 to 2011 that represents an honorable, patriotic and largely non-contradictory continuum.

Such thinking is a fine and even normal accompaniment for a warm summer day of hot dogs and beer. However, for the politicians who now declare themselves “constitutional conservatives” a more rigorous philosophical examination is in order.

Ed Kilgore’s recent article at The New Republic entitled “The Hidden Meaning Behind Michele Bachmann’s ‘Constitutional Conservatism” explores what the author rightly if disparagingly recognizes as a rather radical proposition—returning the federal government to the confines of the U.S. Constitution. Of course, Kilgore considers any such program inherently sinister, writing of Bachmann: “her strong ‘constitutional conservative’ stance indicates, but only to those who are trained to listen, a decidedly radical agenda that is at least as congenial to rabid social conservatives as it is to property-rights absolutists or anti-tax zealots.”

That Bachmann takes conservative positions that petrify liberals is without question. That she uses the Constitution as her ultimate guide is highly questionable. Bachmann gave her definition of constitutional conservatism during her presidential campaign announcement speech last month:

“As a constitutional conservative, I believe in the founding fathers’ vision of a limited government that trusts in and perceives the unlimited potential of you, the American people. I don’t believe that the solutions of our problems are Washington-centric. I believe they are with every-American-centric.”

There’s nothing wrong with Bachmann’s statement per se, it’s just that there is nothing Constitution-specific about it. It was simply a rhetorical collage, similar to the patriotic displays Americans might enjoy on the 4th of July. That a politician would speak this way is nothing new, but Bachmann’s definition of what makes her a “constitutional conservative” is vague enough that virtually any politician could employ the same rhetoric for their own political ends. No doubt, President Obama fancies himself a constitutionalist, whose own “Washington-centric” solution to healthcare reflects an “American-centric” spirit of charity and compassion.

The American Spectator’s Joseph Lawler makes the distinction between symbolic rhetoric and genuine constitutional conservatism:

“With all due respect to Rep. Bachmann, it’s pretty clear that she is not the standard bearer for constitutional conservatism… No, that would be Rand Paul, who also describes himself as a constitutional conservative. What the label means, in Paul’s case, is that he has taken his father’s libertarian politics and packaged them for a wider conservative audience. That means an emphasis on observing the Constitution and the rule of law while pursuing traditional conservative values.”

Lawler then describes the practical application of Sen. Paul’s constitutional conservatism: “In practical terms, Rand Paul tends to be among the most fiscally conservative and least interventionist of the Republican caucus. But a look at his voting record doesn’t reveal radicalism or a plan to restore some lost utopian vision of the U.S… Insofar as Michele Bachmann supports ideas and policies that would radicalize the Republican Party, she’s less of a constitutional conservative than the Pauls and other likeminded members of Congress.”

When Congressman Ron Paul says that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional government programs, he is absolutely correct. But his solution? To wean citizens from their dependence on such programs over a practical period of time. Bachmann generally agrees with Rep. Paul on this issue, as do most conservatives. When Sen. Rand Paul declares the Patriot Act unconstitutional, he cites the obvious violation of the 4th amendment. Bachmann disagrees with Sen. Paul on this issue, as do many conservatives. Many conservatives have simply decided they support the Patriot Act as a “national security” issue, and don’t really care what the Constitution has to say about it. This is similar to the attitude of “constitutional scholar” Obama, who has the same high regard for “crucial” and “necessary” national healthcare legislation.

Herein lies the difference between being a mere “conservative” and a “constitutional conservative.” It also reminds us that even those who strongly desire a return to the letter-of-the-law Constitution, like the Pauls, also understand that our federal government has strayed so far from the Founders’ vision that it won’t be stuffed back in its constitutional box overnight.

That anyone would even want to return the federal government back to its constitutionally proper limits is what the Left will continue to consider “extreme.” That much of what the Right promotes is equally outside constitutional boundaries will always inhibit its ability to be comprehensively conservative in a true constitutionalist sense. Republicans like Bachmann will no doubt be constitutional conservatives on occasion—but by default, not design. And for either Left or Right to concede in any manner that our nation’s founding charter simply doesn’t matter, is not only a permanent recipe for unlimited government—but negates the entire purpose of even having a Constitution in the first place.