There’s nothing conservatives cherish as much as the United States Constitution, except perhaps, their interpretation of the United States Constitution. When President Bush signed a bill into law, he often added a “ signing statement” explaining that he would not comply with elements he considered unconstitutional. Now the Republicans running the House, under pressure from the Tea Party, are requiring that every time a member of Congress introduces legislation he or she must certify that it is constitutional. Makes you wonder why conservatives care so much who sits on the Supreme Court—since they seem determined to usurp its job.
But beneath this apparent right-wing continuity lies a massive shift. For President Bush, believing in the Constitution meant believing that when it comes to national security, the federal government in general—and the president in particular—can do pretty much whatever they want. For the new Republican Congress, by contrast, believing in the Constitution means believing that when it comes to intervening in the economy, the federal government in general—and the president in particular—can do barely anything at all.
Today’s Tea Partiers generally ignore this shift because they ignore national security itself. Their “Contract from America” doesn’t even mention foreign policy. But imagine what would happen if the Tea Partiers did grapple with the foreign policy implications of their constitutional vision. They believe, after all, that the framers of the Constitution wanted federal power to be extremely limited so it wouldn’t infringe upon personal liberty. They’re fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson, the founder most associated with distrust of a powerful federal government. And they generally downplay the role of Alexander Hamilton, who believed that only a strong central state could build America into an industrial power. But Jefferson’s distrust of federal power was deeply bound up with his fear of militaries and empires. He believed that a standing army, if created, would menace individual freedom and he wanted America to be a trading nation that would steer clear of the “entangling alliances” that defined European power politics.
Anyone genuinely worried about debt can’t ignore the fact that defense constitutes a majority of federal discretionary spending.
Throughout American history, as Walter Russell Mead has catalogued in his book, Special Providence, the disciples of Jefferson—while often suspicious of government intervention domestically—have been downright terrified of government intervention overseas. And while Jeffersonianism does not fit simply into today’s left-right spectrum, many of the most impassioned modern Jeffersonians have been conservatives. In the early years of the 20th century, for instance, it was generally progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who championed a powerful executive branch, increased government oversight of the economy and an America that flexed its muscles overseas. By contrast, it was conservatives like Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge who preferred a weak presidency, unregulated capitalism and an America that stayed out of Europe’s military squabbles.
In modern times, conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have tried to reconcile their efforts to rein in federal power with their support for a large military and an interventionist foreign policy. But both times, the latter has seriously trumped the former. Under both Reagan and Bush, aggressive, militaristic foreign policy produced more presidential power and larger deficits. Tea Partiers say their movement is a response to the way government power, and government debt, grew under both Bush and Obama. But if they looked seriously at the reasons for that growth under Bush, they would see that much of what they’re upset about is the military and homeland security spending justified by his expansive “war on terror.” Anyone genuinely worried about debt can’t ignore the fact that defense constitutes a majority of federal discretionary spending. And anyone devoted to a strict interpretation of the Constitution can’t ignore the fact that America is still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Pakistan, Yemen and lots of other places, without formal congressional declarations of war, although that is what the Constitution requires.
The Republican foreign-policy apparatus in Washington, which is in large measure funded by defense contractors, has declared preemptive war on the idea that military spending should be part of deficit-reduction discussion. But before going along, the Tea Partiers should think about how they’d like to be remembered by history. If they don’t extend their constitutional vision to foreign policy, they’ll be abandoning any serious chance of cutting the deficit and reducing the size of government. They’ll become indistinguishable from other conservative Republicans, just the latest in a long line on the right to put a globalist foreign policy over a minimalist state. If, on the other hand, they genuinely chart a foreign-policy course based upon their understanding of the Constitution—if they subordinate the “war on terror” to the demands of fiscal solvency—they will be a new and subversive force in American politics, and the Republican Party will be headed for a fascinating ideological showdown. Would that make the Tea Party a positive force in American politics? Heck no. But at this point, I’d settle for them simply being an interesting one.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.