In September 1960, several dozen young conservative intellectuals descended on National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr.'s estate in Sharon, Conn., to draft a manifesto. Terse but sweeping, it demanded victory over rather than coexistence with “international communism,” and declared that when “government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation.” Known as the Sharon statement, it helped forge the modern conservative movement.
Half a century later, many of the movement’s elders -- including former Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner Jr. and American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery -- are trying to replicate that success. On Wednesday, they assembled near George Washington’s former estate to issue a new epistle called the Mount Vernon statement.
Republican electoral prospects may be looking up with the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and with a host of other Democratic seats up for grabs, but the statement, which appeared on the eve of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, suggests that the establishment right is shivering -- not so much because of the unusually frosty Washington winter but because of the potential threat posed to the GOP by the insurgent “tea party” movement. As a result, conservatives are going into overdrive to attempt to co-opt it.
The Mount Vernon statement, as the Washington Post first reported, is the product of the Conservative Action Project, which is headed by Meese and emerged from the secretive conservative power-broker organization known as the Council for National Policy. The project’s website explains that “just as FDR’s soak-the-rich policies did not work in the 1930s to end the Great Depression, similar policies by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats will not work today in restoring to us a vibrant economy.” It also features photos of Calvin Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, who was an early exponent of supply-side economics, arguing that cutting taxes on the wealthy could directly lead to higher government revenues.
The Mount Vernon statement thus aims to relegate the free-spending George W. Bush era and President Obama to the sidelines and to reinvent the conservative movement in its original small-government image.
At the same time, it tries to paper over the differences between social conservatives, libertarian conservatives and neoconservatives by reminding “economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety and leadership role in the world.” In papering over those differences, however, it lacks the fire and energy of the original Sharon statement.
If the Mount Vernon statement represents a lofty attempt to restate conservative principles, the practical blueprint for the right’s attempt to assimilate the tea party’s adherents is contained in an important article by Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne in the Feb. 22 National Review. Ponnuru and O’Beirne flatly reject the doomsayers such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, who suggests that the tea party could be “the ruin of the [Republican] party.” Ponnuru and O’Beirne liken taking the tea partyers onboard to the debates that surrounded allying the GOP with the Christian right during the 1970s. They define the problem out of existence: Some of the tea partyers may be “rough around the edges” but “are not unpopular and their views are not extreme.”
The job of the GOP is to form coalitions with the tea partyers, they say, or go out of business. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has been playing footsie with the tea partyers, discussing the November election with about 30 of their leaders Tuesday.
Whether the GOP can permanently harness the energies of the tea party, however, is another matter. The insurgent party may well drive the GOP so far to the right that it proves something of an albatross in November. It’s also hard to see how the GOP could deliver on the tea party’s demand for cutting federal entitlement programs, which is political suicide. Indeed, Republicans might well prove as ineffectual as Democrats in attacking the deficit, which they compiled in the first place during the Bush presidency.
No doubt third parties such as the Know-Nothings have historically enjoyed a short life span in America. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously observed, “Third parties are like bees: Once they have stung, they die.” But the tea party may wield a very potent stinger. Its fortunes likely will be bolstered by the towering federal budget deficits that the administration is accruing.
According to conservative firebrand Patrick Buchanan: “Tea partiers now play the role of Red Army commissars who sat at machine guns behind their own troops to shoot down any soldier who retreated or ran. Republicans who sign on to tax hikes cannot go home again.”
As conservative veterans urge the GOP to reclaim the small-government mantle, then, the question hovering over them is whether they will successfully harness the volatile insurgency led by the tea party, or will they themselves be swept aside as part of regime change? It would be no small irony if they were displaced by the very kind of insurrectionist spirit they embodied 50 years ago in Connecticut.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest and the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”