Constitutional Opinions

Into the Wilderness

We may be licking our wounds, but we still have our principles.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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AS REPUBLICANS LICK THEIR WOUNDS after the election just ended, the person of whom I find myself thinking is Robert Bartley. He was editor of the Wall Street Journal for something like 30 years. I admired a lot of things about him—his skill as an editorial craftsman, his rectitude in his personal and professional conduct, his pluck as a pugilist on policy, and his success as a family man. But of all the things I admired about him, none was as great as the esprit, the cheerfulness, the doughtiness he showed during his years in the wilderness.

This strikes me as something for young conservatives today—and others who aren’t so young—to remember after the defeat of Governor Romney. Oh, it’s nice to be a winner. No doubt about it. But it’s not as nice as sticking to one’s principles. Winning itself, moreover, sometimes requires a long trek through the wilderness. That’s where one can test not only one’s mettle but also one’s theories. It has to be said that, while compromise may sometimes be in order, a victory won by accommodation is rarely as sweet—or as credible—as a victory won by perseverance.

This was the case in respect of Winston Churchill. One can read about it in books or watch the wonderful BBC series The Gathering Storm, which traces Churchill’s years at Chartwell, when he was out of power and warning of the impending war. He certainly had his frustrations and moments of moroseness. But he sought solace in painting and family and plotted with aides to gain intelligence from the government so as to inform his speeches in Parliament. He was at odds with his own party during this period, but he didn’t let it stop him. It was precisely his dissent that qualified him for elevation to high command when war came.

How wonderful it would have been to interview him. But I did meet Menachem Begin, who had one of the longest slogs through the wilderness of any statesman of our time. After leading the revolt against the British that led to the creation in 1948 of the Jewish state, he went into the opposition rather than attempt a civil war against the Labor Party led by David Ben-Gurion. The new premier hated Begin so intensely that, in the Knesset, he refused to address Begin by name. Begin would spend nearly 30 years in opposition before the country turned to him for leadership and he won his Nobel Prize for the peace, if that’s what it was, with Egypt.

Ariel Sharon, too, had a long testing time. This was after he was blamed for the massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. When he was in the wilderness, I used to visit him on his farm. Once, when he called to say he wanted to talk, I met him at the Hotel Dorchester at London. When we sat down, the only question I asked was whether I could turn on a tape recorder. He talked without interruption for two hours, an astonishing soliloquy that filled an entire page of the Wall Street Journal and that nearly everyone set down as marginal. It would be another decade yet before the country handed him up to power.

One of the striking things about all of these leaders—and, though I never met him, Reagan, too, after his failure to gain the Republican nomination in 1976—was their cheerfulness, their lack of embarrassment in their years out of power. None of them, so far as I can tell, was in it for the jobs or the power or the standing or even the glory. They were in it for the principles, the ideas, the cause, the country. They were all happy warriors, and they spent their years out of power reading and learning and writing.

IN MY CASE, it has been the Constitution. It is a joy to study. The records of its writing and the debates over its ratification just crackle with politics and personality and principle and profound prose. So do the great Supreme Court opinions, which I have called the Himalayas of legal precedent in whose foothills we hoe the vines of liberty. We are ever more plainly at what I like to call a constitutional moment, in which our politics are so divided that we are getting down to the bedrock. The more one studies it, the more one sees guidelines for the long game.

Those of us who are being set down today as extreme or marginal will find in it much solace. The gold standard? For company in the cause of sound money we have Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, and Coolidge, to name but a few. They can’t all be flakes. In Obamacare, we won a significant victory in blocking its justification under the Commerce Clause, a position that was widely mocked before the Court ruled. We lost on the taxing power. Time to study just what the Founders figured on when they laid down the famous words about how “[n]o capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census.”

It is being said that Governor Romney fell into a gender gap. This trap was laid in the debate in which he was repeatedly asked by a former aide* to one of President Obama’s surrogates whether states could outlaw birth control. The governor dodged the question by saying no one wanted to outlaw birth control. I thought it was a mistake, that he would have done better confronting what I called, in a column here, “Mrs. Griswold’s Ghost.” The governor dodged all the other constitutional questions, too, and in one debate even turned a tough question over to “our constitutionalist here,” Ron Paul.

If the Hispanic vote, another treasure Romney is said to have lost, turns in part on the immigration question, the Constitution is full of guidance. Parts of Arizona’s law may, or may not, be constitutional. What is unambiguous is that the Constitution grants to Congress the power to establish a “uniform rule of naturalization.” Feature that word “uniform.” Why is this a power that is given to the Congress rather than reserved for the states? The Republicans had a leader, in George W. Bush, who understood the power the Constitution enumerates. He won enough of the Hispanic vote to get himself twice elected president.

How far into the wilderness the Republicans actually are at the moment is not so clear. They have, after all, the House, and relative conservatives hold a slim majority on the Supreme Court. That’s about half of the constitutional structures. But if it turns out that we’re going to be in the wilderness for a while, I’ve stuffed my rucksack full of books. The Constitution is one of them, and so is a copy of Bob Bartley’s The Seven Fat Years, which turned out to be his masterpiece. And he wrote it, by the way, in a cubbyhole in his basement after the candidate he supported for president lost the election and while his nemesis was in power.

Photo: Konrad Fiedler/New York Sun 

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About the Author

Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the New York Sun, is the author of The Citizen's Constitution: An Annotated Guide (Basic Books).