Before the voters in Utah elected him to the U.S. Senate, Mike Lee caught the media’s eye. Lee’s campaign headquarters prominently displayed the famous painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer by his horse at Valley Forge. The portrait served as an apt illustration of two Lee convictions: that the federal government must be limited by the Constitution and that the nation’s founding was guided by the hand of Providence.
Not everyone thought it was such a pretty picture. In a New York Times Magazine essay on the “radical constitutionalism” of the Tea Party, Jeffrey Rosen wrote that Lee “offered glimpses of a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution.” One that, horrors, “views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional.”
According to Rosen, the “scattershot right-wing hostility to government” known as the enumerated powers doctrine could only have been gleaned from the obscure writings of W. Cleon Skousen, the alleged “constitutional guru of the Tea Party movement” who died three years before there was such a thing and who most Tea Partiers have almost certainly never heard of. But there was that constitutional seminar attended by 25 people — “most of them over 50,” Rosen warns — at the Omni Shoreham.
Lee will be joined in the Senate by Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican about whom even more hysterical things were written and said. An article in New York cited the younger Paul’s election as one of its few pieces of evidence that libertarians “haven’t been this close to power since 1776.” Paul has been using the devil’s music, rock ‘n’ roll, to send the electorate subliminal messages about libertarianism — “he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand.”
Jonathan Chait of the New Republic also reminded us that Paul liked Ayn Rand, which made him “exactly tantamount to a candidate whose worldview was shaped by Karl Marx.” Chait further suggested that this proves Paul “harbors a private contempt for Christianity.” Well, his name is Rand! Some even say Paul’s god is Aqua Buddha.
All this goes without mentioning the scores of mini-Pauls and mini-Lees scheduled to take control of the House of Representatives. Do you know what those wild and crazy guys plan to do? “When Republicans take over the House next week, they will do something that apparently has never been done before in the chamber’s 221-year history,” reports the Washington Post. “They will read the Constitution aloud.”
What next? Will those Tea Party radicals conduct a séance with the Founding Fathers, perhaps using a Skousen-autographed ouija board?
The reality, of course, is that most of Congress’s new recruits will quickly acclimate themselves to Washington and revert to the depressing Republican norm of talking constitutionalism while voting for big government. As Kevin Gutzman, a conservative history professor at Western Connecticut State University, told the Post, “It looks like this will be business as usual — except for the half-hour or however long it takes to read the Constitution out loud.”
As we sadly learned with all the sound and fury that attended the Republican Revolution of 1994, the real risk isn’t that a tidal wave of right-wing kookery will wash over the land. The greater likelihood is that the GOP rebels will quickly lose their reformist spirit after a few fizzled confrontations with the bipartisan Beltway establishment and end up governing much like the Democrats they replaced.
Still, the midterm elections did bolster the noble ranks of trouble-makers on Capitol Hill. In the Senate alone, Lee, Paul, Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Ron Johnson will join Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint in shaking things up. Paul has already proposed to tack spending cuts to most major pieces of legislation — a suggestion that will no doubt annoy the Democratic leadership and probably irritate more than a few Republican bigwigs too.
It may also be the case that grassroots conservatives now have a greater appreciation for the fact it will take more than one 1994 or Reagan landslide to right the country. Continued engagement, even after putative allies of conservatism are in power, will be necessary to accomplish anything worthwhile. Righting the country’s finances, restoring its Constitution, and repealing Obamacare are long-term projects.
The Republican freshmen storming Washington are scaring the right people. Only time will tell whether they’ll do the right things.