Buckley Critique of Mount Vernon Statement Misses Point

The Mount Vernon Statement of political conservatives' principles was bound to incite a good deal of comment, most of it hostile, given the general tenor of the U.S. press. Criticism from a right-of-center luminary such as Christopher Buckley is rather more significant, however, regardless of whom he voted for in the last election. Buckley’s stature as a satirical novelist and only child of modern conservative movement co-founder William F. Buckley means we must take seriously his scathing article on the matter at the Daily Beast.

Briefly summarized, "The Mount Vernon Statement: Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century" (MVS) is a 537-word document arguing for a "recommitment" "to the ideas of the American Founding," signed by a who's who of U.S. conservative political and intellectual leaders.

Denouncing change done simply for change's sake (an obvious slap at President Obama’s immensely effective campaign theme), the document calls instead for "a change consistent with the American ideal, ... not movement away from but toward our founding principles. At this important time, we need a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."

Exhorting the right to "Quit Redefining Conservatism," Buckley criticizes the MVS for being ... too long: "a windy yadda-yadda about first principles and why are liberals wiping their arses with the Constitution." Coming from the man who described President Obama's boring, ultra-partisan, and rhetorically hollow State of the Union address as "one hell of a speech," this criticism may not carry much credibility.

Undaunted, Buckley goes on to criticize the MVS as not being motivated by conservative policy goals but instead a simple animus toward Obama. He gives no evidence for this claim, instead promptly quitting the field of battle after discharging this projectile from his rhetorical popgun (although he promises to return). In addition, the motives behind the document are irrelevant: if its ideas are good, we should accept them, and if not, not. The anti-Obama claim is just an obvious ad hominem attack and merits only instant dismissal.

Buckley is certainly right, however, about the MVS being a rhetorically awkward document, one all too obviously written by a committee trying to accommodate a variety of perspectives. And he is right about the conservative movement often being too talky, pompous, and elderly. But that’s also true of liberals -- and even of some people writing for the Daily Beast. These quibbles don’t have any bearing on the philosophical and strategic contentions in the document -- which are of course what’s important about it.

Much worse than his concentration on irrelevant side elements, however, it is the things that Buckley gets quite wrong that make his critique so disappointing.

He’s dead wrong, for example, about there not being a need for conservatives to get down to first principles. Anyone who has any memory at all of the George W. Bush administration and the profligate Republican Congress must understand this. First principles are exactly what the right needs if it is to persuade people that the mistakes of the past decade were anomalous and don’t reflect what the movement is truly about and would do if it obtained political power.

Moreover, if Buckley believes that the answers to all of our problems are all to be found in conservative writings and political strategies of the past half-century -- which is the thrust of his piece -- he must explain why these things did not do the trick in the past, why people are still waiting for the conservative millennium to arrive.