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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Peter Berkowitz

Last Build Date: Mon, 02 Feb 2009 00:29:43 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Constitutional Conservatism

Mon, 02 Feb 2009 00:29:43 -0600

Unfortunately, contrary to the Constitution's lesson in moderation, the two biggest blocs in the conservative coalition are, in reaction to electoral debacles in 2006 and 2008, tempted to conclude that what is needed now is greater purity in conservative ranks. Down that path lies disaster. Some social conservatives point to recent ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, and Florida that rejected same-sex marriage as evidence that the country is and remains socially conservative, and that deviation from the social conservative agenda is politically suicidal. They overlook that whereas in California's 2000 ballot initiative, 61 percent of voters rejected same-sex marriage, in 2008 opposition in the nation's most populous state fell to 52 percent. Indeed, most trend lines suggest that the public is steadily growing more accepting of same-sex marriage, with national polls indicating that opposition to it, also among conservatives, is strongest among older voters and weakest among younger voters. Meanwhile, more than a few economic or libertarian conservatives are disgusted by Republican profligacy. And, they remain uncomfortable with or downright opposed to the Bush administration's support in 2004 for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and its continuation of the Clinton administration moratorium on government funding of embryonic stem cell research. In addition, many are still angry about the intensive Republican-led intervention by the federal government in the 2005 controversy over whether Terri Schiavo's husband could lawfully remove the feeding tubes that had kept his wife alive in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. These libertarian conservatives entertain dreams of a coalition that jettisons social conservatives and joins forces with moderates and independents of libertarian persuasion. But the purists in both camps ignore simple electoral math. Slice and dice citizens' opinions and voting patterns in the 50 states as you like -- neither social conservatives nor libertarian conservatives can get to 50 percent plus one without the aid of the other. Yet they, and the national security hawks who are also crucial to conservative electoral hopes, do not merely form a coalition of convenience. Theirs can and should be a coalition of principle, and a constitutional conservatism provides the surest way to achieve one. The principles are familiar: individual freedom and individual responsibility, limited but energetic government, economic opportunity, and strong national defense. They derive support from Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, as well as from Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, in his most representative moments, John Stuart Mill -- outstanding contributors to the conservative side of the larger liberal tradition. They are embedded in the Constitution and flow out of the political ideas from which it was fashioned. In the 1950s, they animated William F. Buckley Jr.'s critique of higher education in America in God & Man at Yale, an opening salvo in the making of the modern conservative movement. In the 1960s, they were central to Frank Meyer's celebrated fusion of traditionalist and libertarian conservatism, and they formed the backbone of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign for the presidency. In the 1980s, they inspired Ronald Reagan's consolidation of conservatism. In the 1990s, they fueled Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution." And even though George W. Bush's tumultuous eight years in the White House have left conservatives in disarray, these principles informed both his conception of compassionate conservatism and his aspiration to make the spread of liberty and democracy a crucial element of American foreign policy. Elaborated and applied in the spirit of moderation out of which they were originally fashioned, the principles of a constitutional conservatism are crucial to the restoration of an electorally viable and politically responsible conservatism. To be sure, short-term clashes over priorities and policies are bound to persist. Nevertheless, rallyi[...]