This weekend I was invited speak about the Constitution to a local 9-12 organization. Following my presentation, one of the participants mentioned that he was a bit frustrated. Having gone to a number of political / Tea Party meetings, he was frustrated that while the participants agreed on 90% of the issues, they spent most of their time arguing over the 10% they didn’t.
That statement is very telling and suggests a lesson to be had at the hands of the Founding Fathers. From September of 1787 through June of 1788 there was a tremendous battle over ratification of the Constitution. Both sides were represented by larger than life patriots. The Federalists included men like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall. The Anti-Federalists included names like Sam Adams, George Mason and John Hancock. Indeed, an argument could be made that the Anti-Federalists were the more eloquent of the lot, not the least of whom was Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty of give me death!” fame.
Nonetheless, despite their substantial oratorical and writing skills, the Anti-Federalists lost. The fact that they lost is not particularly important today. Why they lost, however, is. Simply put, the Anti-Federalists lost because they were unfocused and tried to fight something with nothing.
The United States under the Articles of Confederation was a disaster. The federal government was weak and heavily indebted, state governments carried massive debts, printed money like it was newspaper and imposed confiscatory taxes on their citizens. Inflation raged, veterans went unpaid and farmers across the country were being thrown off of their farms and into jails because of debts and taxes. This was the climate in which the Anti-Federalists were decrying the Constitution. They suggested the federal government would become too powerful, that citizens would lose their freedoms and states would become beholden to it. What they didn’t suggest however was a coherent or compelling alternative. When faced with a choice between the Federalist’s imperfect Constitution and the Anti-Federalist’s nothing, the citizens chose the Constitution.
Today, 223 years later America faces a similar situation. The economy is in disarray, debts are strangling government at all levels and the policies in place are not conducive to liberty, freedom or economic success for citizens individually or the nation as a whole. As such, Americans face a choice in November 2010. The question for conservatives is, will they give citizens something to vote for? It is not enough to say that the Democrats are shredding the Constitution and destroying the fabric of the nation and that therefore the answer is to vote Republican. Many Republicans helped create this situation so the GOP cannot be the default solution. Conservatives mush be very clear about what they want, not just talk about what they don’t want. Fighting something with nothing didn’t work for Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams 223 years ago and it won’t work for conservatives today. One must stand for something. As the last election demonstrated, lukewarm conservatism doesn’t sell. A candidate or a party that doesn’t give citizens a reason to follow them should not be surprised when they don’t.
The Tea Party movement has created an opportunity for conservatives to demonstrate that they stand for concrete ideas, real solutions and something other than “We’re not those guys”. Which brings me back to the 90%-10% problem I mentioned earlier. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, but I can guarantee voters that a conservative with whom you agree 90% of the time will be a far better steward of government than a progressive with whom you agree 10% of the time. Conservatives must be clear about what they want and be willing to focus on the 90% of the issues they agree upon. And it starts from the bottom.
Grass roots conservatives can start by making a list of their core principals for good governance and using that as a litmus test for their support. I don’t mean virtues like honesty, loyalty or even bravery, but rather ideas related to the business of governing. The difference is important. Every politician believes he or she is honest, and John McCain may be one of the bravest men this country has ever produced. The truth is however, honesty and bravery don’t make for good governance if they are combined with liberal ideas and progressive tendencies. Therefore, conservatives must be clear about what they want and expect from their Congressmen, Senators and President as it relates to the Constitutional office they will hold.
Such a checklist might look something like this:
Support candidates who:
1. Are fiscal conservatives and believe that the federal government should not be involved in every aspect of our lives from cradle to grave.
2. Believe the federal government has exceeded its bounds and are willing to make the tough decisions necessary to return it to a Constitutionally mandated limited government.
3. Understand it is the private sector and capitalism that are the engines of American prosperity, not government.
4. Do not believe it is the job of the federal government to prop up uncompetitive companies or industries.
5. Support harnessing America’s abundant natural energy resources.
6. Are strong on national defense and border security.
7. Understand we are in a war, that war is not a crime and punishment activity and that terrorists should not be treated like household burglars, nor given political stages upon which to air their vitriol.
8. Will fight efforts to impose harmful international laws and agreements on the United States.
9. Believe in freedom of speech, particularly political speech.
10. Support democratic nations and activists as they face threats from totalitarian regimes.
Whatever the list looks like, if conservatives can put forward a spectrum of compelling ideas and embrace the candidates who support them, they can become the beacons that lead the country out of this self inflicted morass.
The Federalists won because they had a plausible plan for solving the country’s problems. The citizenry responded and America has flourished for 223 years. Today conservatives want to put the country back on the path to freedom and prosperity. If they want Americans to step back from this precipice overlooking a socialist hell, if they want the citizenry to turn around and embrace freedom, free enterprise and individual responsibility, if they want voters to race to the exits after one showing of “Yes We Can”, they had better give them something to run towards, give them something that inspires, give them something worth fighting for. If they don’t they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.
John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry lost the ratification battle, and we are better off for it. Today they have a second chance at success by showing conservatives how to win the fight against the very things they were warning about 223 years ago.