In Sunday’s New York Times, Senator Lindsey Graham made clear his opinion of the Tea Partiers, saying their movement was “unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country.”
Graham actually makes a very good point.
One of the defining features of American conservatism is not simply a dislike for big government but a wholesale rejection of the modern state, with many on the Right considering the current federal bureaucracy to be grossly unconstitutional and unrepresentative of the Founders’ intentions. Unwittingly, Graham made this point himself when confronted by angry Tea Partiers at a town hall meeting in his home state of South Carolina last year, telling The Greenville News, “They’re a political fringe group … . They believe that Medicare is unconstitutional and student loans are unconstitutional. I’m the conservative in the room.”
Try squaring Graham’s supposed “conservatism” with that of the man who many have considered its American standard bearer, Barry Goldwater. A half century before the Tea Partiers started making noise, Goldwater made clear that a primary task for conservatives is to stress what government should not do, writing “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel the old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
To question whether programs like Medicare or student loans are unconstitutional may be “fringe,” but it’s also conservative, if a figure like Goldwater still has any claim on that label. What is Graham’s claim? The NYT’s story notes “On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups… in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: ‘What do you want to do? You take back your country—and do what with it?”
Graham’s challenge illustrates his uselessness. What, exactly, is Graham uncomfortable with our government doing? What current federal intrusiveness is Graham looking to seriously challenge or roll back? While it may be true that the relatively new Tea Party movement often exhibits philosophical immaturity, it also represents a growing and popular disenchantment with the status quo, something reflected in polls that continue to track the low favorability of both political parties.
The NYT’s article is primarily a flattering portrayal of a senator who prides himself in protecting establishment interests, making sure the center always holds, and that politics as usual remains usual. Graham believes the current Tea Party anger is unsustainable and he may be right—as he simultaneously fails to realize that such anger is born of an increasing belief amongst Americans that our current national trajectory is unsustainable and that we might be descending into bankruptcy, economically, politically and perhaps morally. The NYT’s story begins, “The Obama Administration Courts Him… The Tea Partiers Shun Him… Lindsey Graham is Right Where He Wants to Be,” and no doubt he is. The story then declares Graham “This Year’s Maverick,” which is absurd. A real maverick might be someone who dares to challenge conventional wisdom, perhaps even tackling sacred cows like Medicare or students loans. Goldwater was a maverick whose radicalism resulted in a landslide defeat. Graham is an establishment man dedicated to making sure no actual mavericks—or conservatives—get anywhere near the reins of power. “Ron Paul is not the leader of the Republican Party” a defiant Graham told an angry audience at a town hall last year.
I have long called myself a conservative, something that has always meant much more than the partisanship most mainstream conservative pundits obsess over, and certainly something more substantive than the Republican Party’s typical offerings. I essentially agree with Goldwater—that if it’s not in the Constitution, our government has no business doing it. For the first time I can remember, it seems that more conservatives than ever are closer, or at least willing to consider getting closer, to this very elementary, yet admittedly radical position of supporting true constitutional government. For conservatives, a “coherent vision for governing the country” should start with an admission that there should be much less government.
Any conservative today who does not want to rethink or reexamine our current state of affairs is not serious. Graham wants to rethink and reexamine nothing, but does take great pride in serving elite interests, facilitating deals for the current administration as much as he did the last one. How this makes him a maverick remains clear only to the NYT’s. How it makes him conservative remains clear only to him.