Selectively Defending the Constitution at the Claremont Institute

More

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

constitution.png
Wikimedia Commons


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. 

Thanks to the rise of conservative intellectuals, "the case against Progressivism and in favor of the Constitution is stronger and deeper than it has ever been," Kesler writes, even as the Constitution is being tested as never before, often by the pen of conservatives like Professor John Yoo, an occasional contributor to The Claremont Review of Books, and David Addington, now at The Heritage Foundation. Should Mitt Romney win this November, we'll replace a president who went to war in Libya without Congressional approval with a president who says he can go to war in Iran without Congressional approval. Meanwhile Senator Rand Paul proposes a bill that would require a warrant before law enforcement could spy on citizens using domestic drones, and he is stymied by both fellow Republicans and Democrats. Our next president, whoever he is, will also assert his ability to extra-judicially assassinate American citizens, to spy on them, and to detain them without charges or trial. How can Kesler live through this era and declare that the case in favor of the Constitution is stronger and deeper than ever before?

It's as if conservatives jump from the accurate premise that the Constitution gives the federal government power over national security to the non-sequitir conclusion that within that realm anything goes, testicle crushing included. Says Kesler, "Wilson never demonstrated that the Constitution was inadequate to the problems of his age--he asserted it, or rather assumed it. His references to The Federalist are shallow and general, never betraying a close familiarity with any paper or papers, and willfully ignorant of the separation of powers as an instrument to energize and hone, not merely limit, the national government." This is as apt a critique of Dick Cheney.

Says Kesler of liberalism, it is "hard of hearing, irascible, enamored of past glories, forgetful of mistakes and promises, prone to repeat the same stories over and over--it isn't the youthful voice of tomorrow it once imagined itself to be." The same can be said of many Reagan-era conservatives, and many conservative institutions that experienced some past triumph or other. The Claremont Institute is responsible for a lot of great work, publishes a lot of valuable voices*, and earnestly advances its notion of the good, but having attended several of its events, it's a crowd in no way positioned to accuse any other group of being insufficiently youthful.

After rehearsing the familiar facts and figures about the fiscal crisis facing the American entitlement system, Kesler writes that "As it sinks, a new, more conservative system will likely rise that will feature some combination of more means-testing of benefits, a switch from defined-benefit to defined-contribution programs, greater devolution of authority to the states and localities, a new budget process that will force welfare expenditures to compete with other national priorities, and the redefinition of the welfare function away from fulfilling socioeconomic 'rights' and toward charitably taking care of the truly needy as best the community can afford, when private efforts have failed or proved inadequate." When I see this from an avowed conservative, I think to myself, that is a very libertarian vision -- so what exactly is conservatism bringing to the table? Opposition to gay marriage? Colluding with the Democrats to keep waging the drug war and maximize executive power in the War on Terrorism?

A better answer would be that conservatism exists to return the insights of the Founders to preeminence in American life, which happens to be the avowed mission of The Claremont Institute. Perhaps it will fully embrace that mission yet -- there are promising signs that its disastrous alignment with Bush-era foreign policy is over -- but it remains difficult to read George Washington's farewell address, or the Fourth Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment, and to conclude that the Claremont Institute is fighting for the insights that are contained therein.  

Says Kesler, nearing the end of his essay:

Is it just wishful thinking to imagine the end of liberalism? Few things in politics are permanent. Conservatism versus liberalism didn't become the central division in our politics until the middle of the 20th century. Before that American politics revolved around such issues as states' rights, wars, slavery, the tariff, and suffrage. Parties have come and gone in our history. You won't find many Federalists, Whigs, or Populists lining up at the polls these days... Recently, within a decade of its maximum empire at home and abroad, a combined intellectual movement, political party, and form of government crumbled away, to be swept up and consigned to the dustbin of history... If Communism, armed with millions of troops and thousands of megatons of nuclear weapons, could collapse of its own deadweight and implausibility, why not American liberalism? The parallel is imperfect, of course, because liberalism and its vehicle, the Democratic Party, remain profoundly popular, resilient, and changeable.

I doubt that "American liberalism," as practiced via the Democratic Party, is going to collapse, just as I doubt that "American conservatism," as practiced in the Republican Party, is going to collapse.

But I think that the prevailing iterations of both philosophies deserve to collapse (not that desert is ever determinative).

In their current incarnations, both ideological movements are empirical failures, antagonistic to the Constitution, and prone to insisting, every time their policies end in disaster, that they require more power, which is also what they insist on the rare occasions when they produce a success. Kesler seems aware of this at times, and is willing to criticize Republicans on occasion, but never so consistently or vigorously as Democrats, especially in the realm of domestic policy. 

A defense of the Constitution requires far more, as we'll all quickly discover if Mitt Romney wins the White House. If he's given the same benefits of the doubt as was Bush it'll be that much worse. 

*That was not a throwaway compliment, and although I could point to a lot of examples, I'll name just one, because as many people as possible should read Crisis of the House Divided by Harry Jaffa.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In