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The Mount Vernon Statement Won't Fix What's Broken

There’s something not to like for everyone in the Mount Vernon Statement of conservative principles that wasn’t signed at Mount Vernon but sure looks good on a masthead.

In fact, the statement was signed at the Collingwood Library and Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, on property which once was known as George Washington’s River Farm. Why they didn’t call the document the  “Collingwood Statement” is understandable. According to the museum’s website, “a member of the British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill, later in 1805 an Admiral commanding a portion of the British fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar, has had his name associated with the property.” It might prove awkward for the organizers if it became known that the site they chose to reaffirm constitutional conservative principles was connected to a man who fought against our revolution.

The organizers — a group of establishment types representing social, traditional, and libertarian conservative groups — call their little screed a “manifesto.” This is just a fancy word for a document written by committee that sacrifices clarity and specificity on the altar of “unity,” while striving mightily to say absolutely nothing elegantly and with as much conviction as can be mustered.

And yet, the very earnestness with which these efforts are undertaken recommends that we at least mark their passing and acknowledge the serious aspirations of the authors in making an attempt to define modern constitutional conservatism.

The maniefsto was written to build upon the seminal Sharon Statement of 1960, explains Ed Meese, former Reagan attorney general:

The statement intentionally harkens back to the Sharon Statement of 1960, which was signed at the home of William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn. That statement of conservative principles helped launch an era of conservative activism that first led to Sen. Barry Goldwater winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and then to Ronald Reagan being elected president in 1980.

“The whole purpose of it is to give an updated version of what are the principles that draw conservatives together,” said Meese, who came with Reagan from California to the White House in January 1981. “And so it was felt both that it was appropriate to draw attention to the Sharon Statement but also to update that in terms of generally how conservatives think today, which is basically the same principles restated in what you might call modern language.”

Why update a statement of principles? One would think that principles should be immutable, solid, permanent. In fact, the Mount Vernon Statement suffers by comparison. Part of the problem is that the Sharon Statement was written at at time when conservatives were truly in the wilderness. Also, the Sharon document was written by grassroots activists, not establishmentarians like Grover Norquist and Ed Meese.

As an example of the difference, here’s the Mount Vernon Statement on natural law:

The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God. It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue.

The Sharon Statement:

That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

It’s not that the Mount Vernon Statement is necessarily deficient. It’s oatmeal compared to the red meat in the Sharon Statement. The manifesto leaves one empty and wanting more. It’s sentiments are pleasant and agreeable enough, but by trying to be all things to all people, it loses focus and ends up sounding platitudinous.

There is a question of consistency as well. Daniel Larison:

I cannot object to the statement that the “federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.” This is true. However, I have no idea why the organizers of this gathering think that anyone will believe their professions of constitutionalism after enabling or acquiescing in some of the most grotesque violations of constitutional republican government in the last forty years. If constitutional conservatism means anything, it has to mean that the executive branch does not have wide, sweeping, inherent powers derived from the president’s (temporary) military role. It has to mean that all these conservatives will start arguing that the president cannot wage wars on his own authority, and they will have to argue this no matter who occupies the Oval Office.

Indeed, are conservatives now to start acting like liberals and pick and choose which parts of the Constitution we wish to adhere to and which parts we wish to do away with? Defining some parts of the Constitution narrowly and other parts broadly is arbitrary and capricious.

Even more vital than a return to first principles, it is important that there first be a recognition that conservatives were complicit in the movement away from those principles under the administration of George W. Bush and that it was done to aggrandize power to the movement and for political gain. Before grandiose pronouncements that claim we can fix what ails us, there must come a reckoning of our own responsibility in this crisis. Many conservatives were willing to support a president who was the antithesis of the ideals laid out in the Mount Vernon Statement. Until acknowledging that fact, we will show that we have learned nothing and are likely to repeat the mistake.

Only the spectacular incompetence and overreach of the Obama administration is reviving conservatism now, not the promise that conservatives will more strictly follow constitutional principles. No manifesto, no statement of principles will imbue lawmakers of both parties with the backbone to fix what they have broken. The efforts of citizens can be helpful, but ultimately it is the 535 members of Congress and the president who must act.

Allahpundit at Hot Air sums up the futility that the Mount Vernon Statement represents in this regard:

The idea, I guess, is that Republican voters can wave this in the faces of wayward congressmen, but the principles here are so broad as to be almost meaningless. Let’s say Paul Ryan proposes a small tax increase as part of a larger plan to pay down the national debt. Does that violate the principles of limited government and market solutions, or is it actually a step towards the greater conservative good of solvency and fiscal responsibility? What about the principle of “opposing tyranny” through “prudent” means? Paulnuts oppose tyranny too (they’re libertarians, after all), but their definition of prudence is so dramatically different from the neoconservative definition as to be unbridgeable. And what about, say, waterboarding? Bob Barr, for instance, would insist that that has no place in any sort of constitutional regime. How much closer does this get us to resolving that dispute?

Allah mentions the tea party movement, many members having already sniffed at the odor of establishment conservatism and found the manifesto wanting. Their independence guarantees that for the tea partiers, the Mount Vernon Statement will have little relevance and less impact on their own efforts at formulating a platform.

Those efforts are about to bear fruit as a coalition of tea party groups are looking to develop a “Contract for America” that attempts to give some coherence to the endeavors of tea party organizations across the country. There is a better chance that the tea partiers will have success with politicians in inculcating a greater respect for the Constitution than the Mount Vernon group will have in influencing conservatives. But that just shows the relative strengths of a grassroots movement versus the establishment when it comes to true political power.

As an earnest attempt to give voice to the movement back toward a stricter adherence to the Constitution, the Mount Vernon Statement is a fine effort to unite the various conservative factions under one overarching set of ideals.

But there is no practicality in it and there are no applicable lessons to be imparted by writing it. In that sense, the signers might have done just as well to republish the Sharon Statement and acknowledge its permanence as a founding document of modern conservatism.