Conservatism

Memoir: That think-tank guy looks back

My eventful life has been woven of four strands — politics, education, media, and ministry — but the kids say it all boils down to typewriting and stapling. A chapter from our upcoming brothers’ memoir, “Downstream,” co-authored with Jim Andrews.

RNC's Steele: right or wrong on Afghanistan?

RNC Chair Michael Steele’s recent comments on Afghanistan – which he derisively called “Obama’s war” while questioning the potential for victory – found pockets of support across the political spectrum.  On the left, those who oppose the war on ideological grounds agreed with Steele’s conclusions (if not his logic) that this is not a war we should be fighting.  On the more libertarian right, many who believe that America’s foreign policy is “extraconstitutional” -- overly aggressive, idealistic and beyond what the Founder’s intended -- view the Afghan campaign as a case study in federal government overreach.   If it is true that politics make strange bedfellows, Steel’s unscripted comments found a nexus of agreement from elements on the left and the right: This is a war poorly conceived, without legitimacy, and with little chance of success. I disagree with this.  While I recognize fully the difficulty of the mission, and understand that Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” for a millennium or more, I also believe that Barack Obama was correct in 2008 when he called Afghanistan a war “of necessity”.  Afghanistan was the birthplace of the 9/11 attacks; the Taliban regime provided sanctuary and material support to Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and its global network of Jihadists. The initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-2002 was a critical blow to this network, and provided the United States with both a measure of revenge and security after 9/11.  It also replaced the Taliban, a brutal fundamentalist Islamic regime that demanded strict fealty to Islamic law with a secular, Western-facing government.  To be sure, the government of Hamid Karzai is no model of Jeffersonian democracy.  But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case – and Karzai is quite good when compared to the rule of his predecessor, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar.

More importantly, I reject the position taken by many libertarian-oriented conservatives that the war in Afghanistan is an example of government overreach and an unconstitutional exercise of executive power.  To be sure, there are ample grounds for a substantive debate on presidential war powers and the Constitution – a debate that has heated up significantly since 9/11.   Those who take a “strict constructionist” view see Congress’ power to declare war in Article I, Section 8 as a clear limit on the use of force: without a formal declaration of war against a defined enemy, the commitment of the U.S. military to combat is essentially proscribed.  However, the case for this is not as clear as it may seem.  During the debate on this topic at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders clearly intended for the executive as Commander in Chief to have the power to “repel sudden attacks” and, in the process of providing for the “common defense”, would be able to act swiftly and decisively in the case of a national emergency.  The Founders instinctively understood that while a check on the president’s ability to unilaterally wage war was desirable, it should not prohibit decisive action when the nation’s security was under threat.

It is my belief that not only does the executive have the power to wage war in Afghanistan without a formal declaration of war, he has the constitutional responsibility to do so.  The most important aspect of the president’s job description as found in Article II of the Constitution is in Section 2:  his role as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.  As such, he is principally responsible for ensuring the nation’s security, and enjoys wide latitude in utilizing the military in the prosecution of U.S. foreign policy.  This has been particularly true in the latter half of the 20th century, where the U.S. has waged full-scale war in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf without a formal declaration of war.  Today, the rise of transnational terror networks and so-called “asymmetrical” warfare which targets civilians without warning has made traditional forms of extended debate on foreign policy increasingly impractical.  Terrorism and global Jihad has made traditional declarations of war truly a relic of an earlier age.

Because of this new reality, the nature of Congressional consent to military action has changed. While presidents are waging war without formal declarations, they do so also with the consent (and political cover) of Congressional approval.  Recall that on September 14, 2001 – just days after the attacks on 9/11 – the Congress passed S.J. Res. 23, which authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.   Later, in 2002, the Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution, which gave Congressional approval for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  While short of formal declarations of war, both of these resolutions provide ample authority for the president to wage war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Contrary to the opinion of Michael Steele, this is not Obama’s war.  It is America’s war.  And the stakes could not be higher.  The elimination of a sanctuary for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a central national security issue for our future.  One of the few correct decisions that President Obama has made since taking office is recommitting the nation to the war in Afghanistan.  His recent appointment of General David Petraeus to take command is a good step in the right direction.  Now he must renounce any time tables for withdrawal and allow the U.S. military to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban once and for all.

The Constitution requires the federal government to provide for the common defense of the nation and its interests – principally the protection of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.  It is hard to imagine pursuing much happiness in the aftermath of a nuclear or biological attack in Times Square carried out by radical Islamists from a base in Afghanistan.

Madison rolls over

As “Black Monday” dawned to the realization that the fraud-filled spectacle of "ObamaCare" has finally passed the House of Representatives, you may have noticed some rumblings under foot.  It wasn't an earthquake in the literal sense, though from the perspective of our constitutional republic, it might as well have been. It was the sound of James Madison rolling over in his grave.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Madison was the one who most understood the importance of structure and process in our new democracy.  He would have been shocked to hear the President of the United States telling the media that process doesn't matter, or the Democratic Majority Leader of the House of Representatives say that the American people don't care about how the government “makes sausage” -- only that it "gets things done".  To Madison, any such talk would be akin to blasphemy: the Constitution was set up to prevent the kind of system where rules could be changed on a whim, and where partisan, parochial "ends" could always be justified by employing "means" which would put government -- and not the people -- in charge.

In short, the sausage making matters.

Madison understood principally that if the American system of government was going to be truly "by and for the people", it had to function in a way that enshrined a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, thereby preventing both the whim of an executive acting by fiat, or a tyranny of a majority in Congress usurping the rights of the minority party and acting on "winds of passion".  The challenge for Madison and the other Founders – particularly Hamilton and Jay, his fellow authors of the Federalist Papers – was to create a structure of government that simultaneously gave vigorous representative power to the legislature, but which ensured that this power would be divided between different branches, two distinct houses of Congress, with different representations, rules and procedures.  The goal, as Madison outlined eloquently in Federalist 51, was to ensure that government -- in scope and power – be controlled:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Principal among these “auxiliary precautions”, according to Madison, was to “divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other” as possible.  The House of Representatives, then, was to be apportioned and elected differently than the Senate. House members, elected every two years and assigned to a relatively small constituency, was to be the “people’s house”.  The Senate, until 1913 appointed by state legislatures, offered equal representation among states irrespective of size and six year terms, insulating it from the vagaries of popular opinion. It also offered clear rules that protect the rights of the minority party from being steamrolled by the majority (thus the “filibuster”). The combination created, in Madison’s words, “opposite and rival interests, and the defect of better motives”.  And these motives were – first and foremost -- to create a government that reflected the will and interests of the people.

Given this, one can only imagine the outrage that Madison would feel today as the Congress – the very institution he crafted so carefully – made a mockery of its balanced powers to break every procedural rule in the book to pass a wildly unpopular bill.  It was a bill so unpopular, in fact, that the Democratic leadership in the Congress knew it could not pass on its own merits, and within Congress’ normal rules and procedures. After the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts as the “41st vote against ObamaCare”, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid decided to do an end-run around the Constitution by re-writing House and Senate rules to fit their partisan goals . Thus you had Rep. Louise Slaughter (D, NY) putting forth “Deem and Pass” – essentially passing the bill without any vote at all -- and Harry Reid’s decision to in the Senate to use reconciliation on ObamaCare to avoid the filibuster, even though the architect of the reconciliation rule, Democrat Robert Byrd, has said clearly that the rule is not appropriate for legislation of this scope and magnitude and should not be used.

For the left, such opinions are nothing more than inconveniences. The goals of progressive government – universal health care, wealth redistribution and social justice -- are so important, not even the Constitution itself should stand in its way.  Obama has said so himself: In an interview with Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ-FM in 2001, he talked explicitly of the Constitution as a “flawed document” with “essential constraints” that were placed by the “Founding Fathers and Constitution” limiting its ability to promote social justice goals.  Thus the concept of the Constitution as a living document, open to modern interpretation and cultural updating.  This is no longer a theoretical threat to the Constitution.  This threat now sits firmly in power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

James Madison certainly understood one important thing about the nature of man and power: “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Indeed, our leaders today are no angels.  And never have we more needed Madison’s prescriptions for a limited government that operates on rules which guarantee the rights of the minority, and which derives its legitimacy from We the People.  They work for us, after all.  We don’t work for them.

Party of Yes convenes at Mt. Vernon

Some ill-informed folks describe conservatives as "the NO party," suggesting that we oppose all proposed legislation without any positive plans for addressing our nation's significant public issues and dire economic concerns. Not so, as we saw this week when conservative leaders gathered to proclaim the Mount Vernon Statement, a strong affirmation of modern Constitutional conservatism. Nor did they speak only for themselves; thousands of conservatives across the land promptly pledged their support.

In clear, bold language, the Mount Vernon Statement declares Constitutional conservatism's principles. "Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law," it begins. "They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government."

Not negative but principled, Constitutional conservatism "limits government's powers but ensures that government performs its proper job effectively."

On public issues, this reasoned, mindful agenda "honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life." On our nation's vital economic woes, Constitutional conservatism "encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions."

Thus we conservatives present a united and empowered team, and all Americans can contemplate for themselves, individually, the simple yet profound and compelling logic of Constitutional conservatism.