The phrase “Constitutional conservative” has been popping up quite a bit the last few years, and figuring out what it means has been a little difficult. I think the true answer is that a Constitutional conservative is a conservative who believes any policy he disagrees with is unconstitutional.
The phrase “constitutional conservative” is much like the earlier phrase “compassionate conservative.” Both are alliterations. Both are vacuous. Both are lies. And both were born as matters of political necessity, when the previous iteration of conservative politics had reached a point of exponential decay. In the late 1990s, the conservatives’ two-term witch hunt of Bill Clinton had ended in colossal failure, and the toxic atmosphere they had created made a complete reboot necessary. A decade later, total policy failure on every front created a similar necessity. When you find me quoting Jonathan Chait, you know I’m talking about something that should be obvious to just about everyone. But it only captures one facet of this multi-dimensional con, which can be summarized as an attempt to portray:
- (1) The Individual, idiosyncratic, and momentary as eternal and immutable.
(2) The radical and ultimately unspecified as sober, prudent, ancient and unquestionable.
(3) The diverse to the point of mutually hostile as integrally unified.
(4) The arch-opportunist and most thoroughly deceitful as the most deeply principled.
Point #1 is Chait’s. It was richly illustrated via its negative space when the new GOP House leadership announced its intention to provide specific Constitutional authorization for every piece of legislation introduced (which, of course, it did not do), but specifically excluded the use of the “necessary and proper” clause–as if it were not part of the Constitution.
Point #2 was very ably made by another TNR regular, Ed Kilgore in “The Hidden Meaning Behind Michele Bachmann’s ‘Constitutional Conservatism’”, earlier this summer. Kilgore referred to “an influential 2009 essay in the Wall Street Journal by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz,” and proceeded to explain:
The Berkowitz formulation did indeed focus on the need for Republicans to return to first principles, with “the constitutional order“ providing the key optic. But he also called “moderation” in the pursuit of liberty an essential constitutional concept, which is not a term one would normally associate with Michele Bachmann or Constitution-brandishing Tea Party activists.
Among this crowd, it more commonly connotes an allegiance to a set of fixed–eternally fixed, for the more religiously inclined–ideas of how government should operate in every field. Constitutional conservatives want to distinguish themselves from the more tradition-bound type of conservatives who adapt to changing social and economic needs and, for that matter, to the perceived wants and needs of the populace. They rarely come right out and denounce democracy, of course, but it’s clear they think their liberties are endangered by people who, say, would like government-guaranteed access to affordable health care…
This Restorationist character of constitutional conservatism was nicely captured by The Economist‘s pseudonymous American reporter w.w. in a commentary on Bachmann’s Iowa launch event:
[I]f one bothers to really think about it, constitutional conservativism, as construed by Ms Bachmann and her boosters, might be better labeled “constitutional restorationism”, which I think more clearly conveys the idea of a return to the system of government laid out in the constitution, interpreted as the authors intended. But this idea, if taken really seriously, is staggeringly radical.
No kidding. But that’s where the dog whistle aspect of calling yourself a constitutional conservative comes into play. The obvious utility of the label is that it hints at a far more radical agenda than meets the untrained eye, all the while elevating the proud bearer above the factional disputes of the conservative movement’s economic and cultural factions.
Which bring us, in turn, to our next point: [“Constitutional Conservatism“ portrays] (3) The diverse to the point of mutually hostile as integrally unified. For further proof of which we need do no more than quote from a much heralded, if widely forgotten “constitutional conservative” document, the Mt. Vernon Statement:
A Constitutional conservatism unites all conservatives through the natural fusion provided by American principles. It reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety and leadership role in the world.
A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda.
It applies the principle of limited government based on the
rule of law to every proposal.
It honors the central place of individual liberty in American
politics and life.
It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and
economic reforms grounded in market solutions.
It supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom
and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that
It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood,
community, and faith.
Some parts of the above are more patently absurd than others, but the point here is the formal functional achievement, the creation of a rhetorically “balanced” articulation of a rhetorical front, behind which all manner of wildly unbalanced political agendas may proceed. The fact that a majority of Tea Party members wants no tampering at all with their Medicare, thank you, is just one little data point in a sea of mutually contradictory political impulses that are thus “unified” under the rubric of “constitutional conservatism”. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Which, again, leads directly to our next point: [“Constitutional Conservatism“ portrays] (4) The arch-opportunist and most thoroughly deceitful as the most deeply principled.
As if all the above were not already enough to prove this point, consider what Paul Krugman just wrote in his mid-week op-ed, “Eric and Irene”. Krugman focuses on Eric Cantor’s insistence that disaster relief for Hurricane Irene be offset entirely by spending cuts. It is, in effect, holding hurricane victims hostage, just as Cantor helped hold the entire economy hostage during the debt ceiling negotiations. Of course this involves gross hypocrisy, since the “principle” here is one Cantor has previously railed against. But that’s a secondary issue, Krugman writes:
The primary issue should be the extraordinary nihilism now on display by Mr. Cantor and his colleagues — their willingness to flout all the usual conventions of fair play and, well, decency in order to get what they want.
Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work.
But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met. That’s what happened with the debt-ceiling fight, and now it’s what’s happening over disaster aid. In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.
Now, there is no textual language in the Constitution saying that you should not act like this. But this is perhaps an ideal example of the limits of textualism. For there is simply no way for the Constitution to work absent pre-Constitutional assumptions of mutual good faith (grounded, for example, in Locke’s argument for the social contract as legitimating framework for civil government). Cantor’s behavior as described by Krugman is a perfect demonstration of how “constitutional conservatives” rape and pillage not just the spirit, but the very soul of the Constitution.