This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.
The war against Islamist extremism dominated American politics from September 2001 to the summer of 2008–by which time President George W. Bush, his generals, and his soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had effectively won its opening rounds. Before they had done so, however, the Republican Party lost not only the political argument about the war during the election of 2006, but also the argument over the causes of economic panic that gripped the country in late 2008.
The sequence of political spasms that shuddered through the country in the first decade of the new century left behind an unfinished war that quickly began to turn against an exhausted America (and is turning still) and a new debate about the size and cost of government. The GOP, representing conservatism, won decisively the first round of the debate on taxing and spending in 2010 and lost the second round this past November. We are left with a divided government that fairly reflects a country deeply divided on this key question (and, less obviously, on strategy for the war). The balance of political power is very close to even: a narrow center-right majority on the Supreme Court, a solid conservative majority in the House of Representatives, and 30 of 50 governorships versus a small center-left Democratic majority in the Senate and the weakest reelected president in modern times–one who conducted a singularly divisive, idea-free campaign.
Because the presidency has the biggest microphone, it appears to the Manhattan-Beltway media elite that President Obama is in charge. It would not have appeared that way to the Framers and it ought not to appear that way to conservatives today. Ten thousand commentaries from legions of self-assured pundits will never repeal even a comma, much less a phrase, of the Constitution.
Conservatives are, first and chiefly, charged with protecting the Constitution, and in this era that means insisting on the rights of the House, and of the states and people they represent, while providing the appropriations necessary to fund the military. It means insisting that the president govern as any president was intended to govern: only with the funds given him by the Congress, for the purposes they are given, only with the authorities allocated to him by the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and only insofar as he does not injure the powers reserved to the states or trample on the rights of individuals.
This means urging the House to use the appropriations and oversight powers it possesses to assure that the military is kept strong and that the executive branch does not abuse its powers, especially through a vast regulatory apparatus.
These checks on the executive are enormous–if used. It is the job of conservatives to insist that they be used, and used even when the chattering class clucks away at the “obstructionists” who are impeding the will of the president.
This will require quite a lot of what passes for political courage in this era. For the full fury of MSNBC and the New York Times op-ed page is going to fall on those conservatives in the House, in the statehouses, and on the bench who say no and do so effectively, and especially on those who do so eloquently. Leaders such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and (most of the time) the majority of justices on the Supreme Court are going to be blasted and threatened by the president and his supporters. It will be the job of conservatives to defend them when they defend the Constitution.
The Constitution’s structures are inconvenient to politicians and interests that seek quick and decisive changes and vastly expanded government. The freedoms the Constitution protects, especially religious freedom, are often unpopular with transient majorities. Siding with those who stand for those structures and who defend those freedoms against all their enemies, foreign and domestic, is–as it has been since 1789–the future of conservatism.
Hugh Hewitt is a lawyer, a professor of law at Chapman University, and the host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show.