Together, President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were supposed to usher in a new era of liberal dominance. The defeated conservative remnant, it was predicted, would then turn against each other, bereft of ideas and reduced to cannibalizing their own movement.
Election results in places as varied as Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have complicated the first part of this storyline. This week, a meeting of the nation’s leading conservative activists, intellectuals, and political leaders hopes to disprove the second.
On Wednesday, more than 80 conservative thinkers and organization heads will come together to ratify a joint manifesto ahead of the 2010 elections. Dubbed the Mount Vernon Statement, its goal is to unite the right — economic, social, and national security conservatives — under a set of shared principles. The idea is to make different conservative groups feel part of the same team and also to bind them in a common intellectual enterprise.
Participants read like a virtual who’s who of conservative movement heavyweights: former Attorney General Edwin Meese, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, among many others. But the final product will be short on policy wonkery.
Unlike the Contract With America, the Mount Vernon Statement is not a detailed legislative agenda. Instead, it intended as a set of philosophical principles that can serve as the foundation for policy formulation later. It is less Frank Luntz than Frank Meyer.
In fact, parts read like Meyer’s “fusionist” conception of conservatism. The document 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 Americas safety and leadership role in the world.”
The Mount Vernon Statement specifically calls for a new “fusion provided by American principles” through “constitutional conservatism.” “In recent decades, America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics,” the document reads. “The self-evident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist. The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.”
“Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new,” the statement continues. “But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?” The Mount Vernon conservatives assert “we need a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
“The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God,” the platform reads. “It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue.”
“I think it’s an excellent statement of conservative first principles,” former Congressman David McIntosh, a leading participant in the Conservative Action Project, told TAS. “The objective was to unify various people who were conservatives who care about different aspects of conservatism. It unites all of those principles under kind of a stronghold of constitutional government.”
But it is not a litmus test, McIntosh says, and a careful reading of excerpts obtained by TAS show efforts were made to accommodate different conservative perspectives. On foreign policy, this constitutional conservatism “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 end.” The framework also “honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life” and “informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”
Writing in the Washington Times, Ralph Hallow compared the Mount Vernon Statement to the Sharon Statement adopted by Young Americans for Freedom in 1960 at the Connecticut home of William F. Buckley Jr. That earlier statement said, “The Constitution of the United States is the best arrangement yet devised for empowering government to fulfill its proper role, while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power.”
The Mount Vernon Statement will be issued the day before the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the nation’s largest gathering of conservative political activists, and at a critical point in a midterm election year. The conservatives putting the statement together hope it will guide the right in power as well as in opposition.
“I think it is always good for people who identify themselves as conservatives to sit back and think of these principles,” says McIntosh. “When the economic crisis came, some in the last administration seemed to say, ‘Well, we tried free-market economics, let’s try something different.’ When a party is in power that has a lot of conservatives in it, we tend sometimes to focus on our own issues and not the larger principles at stake.”
The conservative leaders planning to sign the Mount Vernon Statement tomorrow afternoon say they hope to bring those larger principles back into focus. “We’re hoping this will be picked up by the Tea Party activists as a framework,” says McIntosh. “To have an impact, it must come from the people.”