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Back to Constitutional Conservatism

Illustration: Michael Hogue

Now that Mitt Romney has lost, virtually everyone agrees that the Republican Party needs to change. Liberals say the GOP needs to become more moderate. Conservatives say it has become too moderate. In a way, both sides are right — and wrong.

The moderate Republican ticket that liberals and GOP establishment types covet has been tried recently: Mitt Romney and John McCain. Conservatives are right that a more moderate Republican Party is not the answer.

What many of them are wrong about is conservatism. To turn on talk radio or watch Fox News is not to experience the philosophy of Bill Buckley, the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, or even something like the free market proposals of Jack Kemp. Aside from Paul Ryan’s proposals for entitlement reform—one of the few tangibly conservative and positive differences that separated the Romney and Obama tickets—the populist Right remained stuck on stupid: The President “apologizes” for America; the U.S is threatened by Sharia Law; “Where’s the birth certificate?” Obama eats dog. Donald Trump. Dinesh D’Souza.

Demagoguery, partisanship, and conspiracy theories do not represent ideas. They represent a lack of them. Throw in some clumsy language about “legitimate rape” and couple it with Romney’s Dubya impression on foreign policy, and Americans saw a “conservatism” they didn’t want. Who can blame them?

But they don’t necessarily want Barack Obama’s America either. Voters weren’t in love with George Bush when they rejected John Kerry. They just liked Kerry less. On paper, Democrats should have lost, if sour economies and high unemployment still have anything to do with how people vote. That Romney couldn’t beat Obama says far more about the Republican Party than it says about the Democrats.

The formula for victory is not being more Democrat-lite or neocon-heavy. It also does not lie in embracing socialism or abandoning social issues. The GOP can become a national party again by offering new ideas rooted in old ones.

Since the 2010 elections, “constitutional conservative” has become a popular term for some Republicans, who actually set out to distinguish themselves from the Bush-era. But what does it mean?

The purpose of the Constitution is to limit the federal government. The core definition of being a conservative in the United States, traditionally, is a belief in small government. At its inception, the Tea Party was perceived primarily as a movement against government spending and debt, and majorities of Americans were on board. A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that 51 percent of Americans viewed the massive Tax Day protests that year favorably. As late as January 2011, the Los Angeles Timesreported: “A new Gallup Poll out this morning finds that 71 percent of Americans, even many who do not think highly of the ‘tea party,’ say it’s important that Republicans should take its positions into account.”

Those who now blame Republican losses in this election on the Tea Party are not blaming the philosophy of limited government. They are blaming a movement that has become associated with too many issues besides limited government, including the social issues on which the early movement remained neutral.

But how should a constitutional conservative approach social issues? In this election, voters approved gay marriage in four states. Two states voted to make recreational marijuana legal. A true constitutionalist recognizes that the regulation of marriage and drugs is not found in the Constitution; therefore the 10th Amendment renders these the jurisdiction of the individual states. Conservatives have made such cases against federal healthcare and gun regulation for some time. They should now be consistent and comprehensive in their constitutional arguments — even when they might disagree with the outcomes.

While polls show that Americans are more accepting of same-sex marriage and relaxed drug laws than ever before, the Washington Post reported in May that a Gallup poll showed: “The 41 percent of Americans who now identify themselves as ‘pro-choice’ is down from 47 percent last July… Fifty percent now call themselves ‘pro-life…” The Post continued:

The polling shows that rather than embracing abortion with increasing gusto, Americans—especially young Americans—are rejecting it with increasing disgust, and not just for religious reasons.

Roe v. Wade has long been the heart of the pro-life movement, which if overturned would allow the states to decide the abortion issue. States are now deciding on the issue of gay marriage and drugs in ways that wouldn’t have been politically possible a decade ago. As public attitudes shift on abortion, so may the politics—and constitutional conservatives could stand ready to make the most effective pro-life arguments in the history of the movement.

If youth attitudes could shift the abortion debate, the same could be true concerning our greatest financial drain: entitlements. Unlike their parents, younger Americans do the math and do not expect Social Security and Medicare to survive. The same could be true concerning youth attitudes toward the second greatest drain on resources: A counterproductive and costly foreign policy. Unlike their parents, young people can comprehend an America that does not play policeman or provider to the world while the next generation foots the bill.

A platform of constitutionally limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility could provide fresh answers to the old questions that now impede the GOP’s electoral success. This is not a departure from conservatism but a return to it.

Or the Republican Party can keep recycling Bush-isms—promising more government, war, and less freedom. Constitutional conservatism is the way forward. Conservatism defined as simply hating Democrats will remain a ticket to nowhere.

The lesson of 2012 is that the Republican Party must truly become the limited government party it has always pretended to be—or it will die.

Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own and are independent of any campaign or other organization. 

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