There is a battle raging within the GOP for the heart and soul of the party. It is not about personality or for control of the machine. It’s about ideology, principles, and the direction of the country. It has been ongoing for years and will not abate until one side is totally defeated.
The two opposing sides – the establishment, elite, Rockefeller wing and the resurgent Tea Party – claim to be conservatives and represent true conservative ideology. But both cannot be right. The only way to see who best represents the truth is to determine what conservatism really is.
One solid definition of “conservative” in Webster’s dictionary is “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society.” And that’s what true conservatives seek, a return to the constitutional republic crafted by the Founding Fathers.
In my book, The Last Jeffersonian, I defined conservative principles by specific policies: limited government, federalism, economy and accountability, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, strict construction of the Constitution, protection of civil liberties, a strong national defense, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
The origins of what we know today as conservatism, centered around a belief in limited government, can be traced to Thomas Jefferson, who was behind the formation of a new political party in the early 1790s, the Republicans, formed for the express purpose of opposing the big government agenda of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party that was subverting the Constitution and imposing more government on the country – an array of new internal taxes, profligate spending, a national bank, assumption of state debt, a loose interpretation of the Constitution with like-minded judges to carry out the plan, the suppression of civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a foreign policy that seemed destined for war had it not been for Washington’s mighty hand. The people responded in 1800 and threw the Federalists out after a dozen years, and that party never again held power.
Jefferson and his Republicans won not only the presidency in 1800, but both houses of Congress as well, and he immediately began righting the ship, returning to the ideals of the American Revolution, most eloquently defined in his own Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution.
In his inaugural address, given March 4, 1801, Jefferson defined what he called the “essential principles of our Government”:
“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”
Though the language is old, such a platform could serve as the basis of any conservative movement today. And Jefferson did something else extraordinary: He carried it out his rhetoric. He cut taxes, slashed spending, and repealed laws, like the Sedition Act. Government actually shrank under his leadership, and it remained limited.
Jeffersonian conservatism, sometimes called “classical liberalism,” for those who espoused such beliefs were known as “liberals” at the time, governed the nation, for the most part, for six decades, through it’s organ, the old Democratic Party of Jefferson and Jackson. Only the Lincoln Revolution of 1860, bringing back the policies of Hamilton, broke the hold and ended Jefferson’s America.
For the next half-century and more, it looked as though traditional conservatism was dead. Yet the movement always seemed to find a successful advocate to resurrect it and keep it alive. Whether it was Grover Cleveland, the last Jeffersonian President who broke the Lincoln Republican hold on power in the 1880s and 1890s, or that great underrated president Warren G. Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge, who stopped the progressive agenda of Woodrow Wilson in its tracks in 1920, someone always kept Jefferson’s memory and the movement alive.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, it was Bob Taft; in the ‘60s it was Barry Goldwater, who lost his bid for the White House in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, but ignited the modern conservative movement and paved the way for the most conservative president since Coolidge to win the presidency.
Ronald Reagan finally realized his dream of becoming President in 1980, at the age of 69, after two terms as Governor of California, and two failed White House bids, a minor effort in 1968 and a major one against Gerald Ford in 1976, when he nearly took the party nomination away from a sitting President. In office, Reagan reversed Carter’s malaise, reignited the economy, rebuilt the nation’s lagging defenses, won the Cold War, and restored American pride.
Today, oddly enough, it is not a man but a movement, the Tea Party, that is carrying on Jefferson’s legacy. Although the Tea Party burst onto the scene in early 2009, as a direct reaction to Obama’s massive trillion-dollar stimulus package, the seeds of it were actually planted during the Bush years.
Though Reagan may have been the most conservative President since Coolidge, his Vice President, George H. W. Bush, was no conservative by any stretch of the imagination. He abandoned Reagan’s policies and paid the price at the polls in 1992. But after Clinton’s eight years, Republicans wanted the White House back. Though the party had controlled the House and Senate since 1995, the argument was a Republican President was badly needed in 2000 to make the real reforms America needed.
Enter George W. Bush. I remember the argument well. The Governor of Texas is a solid conservative, the shining white knight who would take up where Reagan left off, the son that was much more conservative than the father. And, with fear of Al Gore running high among conservatives, Bush squeaked into office.
But what we got was far from anything resembling conservatism. Bush was the establishment pick, clothed in the fine linens of Goldwater and Reagan. Aside from a couple of tax cuts (with no reform), we got an expansion of Medicare that added $19 trillion to our unfunded liabilities, $5 trillion in new debt that even Obama called “unpatriotic,” a new Chief Justice who betrayed us on Obamacare, two attempts at amnesty that conservatives were thankfully able to beat back, the PATRIOT Act, NSA surveillance, a bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a massive bank bailout after the financial panic. There was no effort to secure the border, no entitlement reforms, no military buildup to recover from Clinton’s massive cuts even though we were in two foreign wars, and no cuts in domestic spending.
Conservatives were so disillusioned that Obama, an unqualified candidate if there ever was one, coasted to victory in 2008, then to re-election in 2012. The Tea Party rose up as much in response to Republican decadence as Obama’s.
Now, examine these true conservative principles again: limited government, federalism, economy and accountability, sound money, low taxes and tariffs, no national debt, strict construction of the Constitution, protection of civil liberties, a strong national defense, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
Now does that sound like the Tea Party or the GOP Establishment? Do Thad Cochran, Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, or anyone like these distinguished gentlemen follow these principles? Or has government grown under their leadership? The answer is obvious.
Tea Party candidates, and those supported by the Tea Party, are bringing challenges to those establishment Republicans who talk the conservative game but are not conservatives. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, more interested in managing the mess than in cleaning it up. They are fooling and deceiving the people into believing they are conservative but in reality they are charlatans, making themselves rich at our expense. And should be ousted from power.
The Tea Party is not evil. It is not extreme. It is not radical. The people who make it up are not racists, or bigots, or anarchists, just good, salt of the earth folks who love their country and want to see the law and the Constitution prevail, the nation pay its bills, and a stronger society left for our children and grandchildren. They are carrying the mantle of Jefferson. But if that’s extremism in the mainstream media’s book, well, then sign me up!