Selectively Defending the Constitution at the Claremont Institute


The editor of its flagship publication, Charles Kesler, mounts too narrow and partisan a defense of our founding document.

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Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, a conservative publication worth taking seriously, Charles Kesler declares that liberalism is in crisis, that it is all but mortally wounded, and that conservatism may yet triumph if its adherents possess "the prudence and guile to elevate the fight to the level of constitutional principle, to expose the undemocratic presumptions of their opponents."

Is he privy to a conservative movement the rest of us cannot see?

That question was present in my mind throughout his essay. Its focus was domestic policy, and its most powerful critique of American liberalism the observation that its social welfare policies will lead us into fiscal insolvency if they are not reformed. President Obama himself has  acknowledged as much. Speaking a year ago on the subject of Medicare, for example, he stated, "We will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up. I mean, it's not an option for us to just sit by and do nothing." He's spoken of the need to reform Social Security too, though he hasn't raised the subject lately and isn't likely to do so again until after the election.

What Charles Kesler never explains is why the American people would trust the conservative movement and the Republican Party to address the budget deficit or entitlements, given the expansion of the former under every GOP president dating back to and including Ronald Reagan, and the expansion of the latter under George W. Bush, who substantially expanded Medicare. President Obama "faces an electorate that in 2010 moved dramatically rightward, even as his policies were moving American government briskly leftward," Kessler writes, but he fails to mention that during their 2010 victory Congressional Republicans attacked the incumbent not for expanding health care spending, but for endangering seniors by cutting Medicare.

Also unmentioned is the conspicuous, bipartisan failure to reach a debt reduction package, the subsequent failure of a bipartisan super-committee to do the same, the automatic defense cuts that are supposed to result from that failure, and the determination of Republicans to reverse them. Judging by the men who competed for the GOP nomination, these same Republicans are unwilling at a time of gigantic deficits to increase taxes even if spending cuts enacted in the same legislation were ten times as big. There is little reason to think that Obama is the right man to get America's fiscal house in order - and no more reason to think Mitt Romney or Congressional Republicans or movement conservatives are going to behave with fiscal prudence either.

It's easy to see Charles Kesler's error. His temptation, as editor of an august conservative publication in an election year, is to perceive and explain the failure of liberal Democrats. Having identified one, how easy to reflexively assume that giving power to conservative Republicans is a step toward a solution. But you'd think that despite partisan and ideological incentives, the indisputable decades long failure of conservatives or Republicans to shrink government, balance the budget, or reform Social Security or Medicare would indicate that something more than failed liberalism is afoot, especially given that Kesler isn't at all blind to this history.

In 2008 he saw that Mitt Romney was inadequate to the job.

As he wrote back in 2010:

Morning quickly turned to night as George H. W. Bush espied a thousand points of light in the sky. His son later ran for president preaching the four Cs: courage, compassion, civility, and character; Constitution, notice, was not one of them. In 1996, Republican congressional majorities had forced Bill Clinton to return a federal entitlement program to the states. Seven years later, George W. Bush and his Republican congressional majorities passed a new federal entitlement, Medicare Part D, the first since the Great Society and the first ever with no specific source of funding attached to it. Complaints about the ineptitude and intrusiveness of the federal government remain a conservative staple, and the GOP has run through a pharmacopoeia of remedies for the problem without success: tax cuts, tax pledges, tax limits, spending limits, term limits, part-time legislatures, full-time conservative judges, divided government, and a host of never-enacted, barely serious constitutional amendments. Having tried almost everything else, perhaps conservatives should consider the Constitution again.

With an election looming and a Democrat in the White House, bygone Republican failures are forgotten.  

"A health care reform bill, to take the central example, that stretches to 3,000 pages and creates 159 new boards, commissions, and agencies hardly betrays the nimbleness, efficiency, transparency, reliability, and personalization that Americans expect from new companies, products, and services at their best," Kesler writes. I am no more enamored of Obamacare than he is, for reasons best summed up in "How American Health Care Killed My Father," but the same bloated, special-interest influenced, destructively complex and technocratic approach to lawmaking can be seen in legislation from The Patriot Act to the National Defense Authorization Act to every farm bill to attempts at intellectual property "reform." The problem isn't the left half of the political spectrum. The problem encompasses left and right, and what better symbol than the fact that the man the right now insists we should elect president did for Massachusetts health care much of what Obamacare did for American health care.

Oh well, put all that aside.

What I find most frustrating about Charles Kesler, and the Claremont Institute generally, is its failure to follow the sound convictions it articulates to their logical conclusions. Earlier I mentioned that Kesler counseled conservatives to "elevate the fight to the level of constitutional principle, to expose the undemocratic presumptions of their opponents." With few exceptions, conservatives abandon constitutional principle and democratic presumptions as soon as the conversation shifts from domestic policy to the realm of drugs, national security, and foreign affairs.

Says Kesler:

Despite his rhetorical investment in "deliberative democracy" and pragmatic progressivism, Obama is willing to throw it all aside at the moment of decision because it doesn't satisfy his love of justice or rather his love of a certain kind of courage or resolute action. "The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice," he writes in a revealing section of The Audacity of Hope (2006). In a moment like that, he argues, a great man must follow his own absolute truth, and the rest of us are left hoping it is Abraham Lincoln and not John Brown, much less Jefferson Davis, whose will is triumphant. The great man doesn't anticipate or follow or approximate history's course then; he creates it, wills it according to his own absolute will, not absolute knowledge.

When combined with liberalism's lust for strong leaders, this openness to Nietzschean creativity looms dangerously over the liberal future. If we are lucky, if liberalism is lucky, no one will ever apply for the position of liberal superman, and the role will remain vacant. But as Lincoln asked in the Lyceum speech, "Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down." More worrisome even than the danger of an Übermensch able to promise that everything desirable will soon be possible is a people unattached to its constitution and laws; and for that, liberalism has much to answer.

There is a lot in that critique that applies to Obama. What's remarkable is that it is aimed at and inspired by his domestic agenda, including a health care bill duly passed into law by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Yet in the area of national security policy, Kesler is silent here, though Obama has fully bought into the post-9/11 bipartisan consensus, where Madisonian checks and balances are rejected, multiple parts of the Constitution violated, and all is done in secret so that the people never get the opportunity to fully evaluate existing policy. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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