WASHINGTON -- So the "summer of recovery" swelters on, with Democrats sun-blistered, pestered by bottle flies, sand in their swimsuits, water in their ears. Jobless claims increase, Republicans lead the generic congressional ballot and George W. Bush is six points more popular than President Obama in "frontline" Democratic districts that are most vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Still, Democrats hug the hope that Obama is really the liberal Ronald Reagan -- but without wit, humor, an explainable ideology or an effective economic plan. Other than that, the resemblance is uncanny.
Yet the Republican Party suffers its own difficulty -- an untested ideology at the core of its appeal.
In the normal course of events, political movements begin as intellectual arguments, often conducted for years in serious books and journals. To study the tea party movement, future scholars will sift through the tweets of Sarah Palin. Without a history of clarifying, refining debates, Republicans need to ask three questions of candidates rising on the tea party wave:
First, do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional? This seems to be the unguarded view of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and other tea party advocates of "constitutionalism." It reflects a conviction that the federal government only has powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution -- which doesn't mention retirement insurance or health care.
This view is logically consistent -- as well as historically uninformed, morally irresponsible and politically disastrous. The Constitution, in contrast to the Articles of Confederation, granted broad power to the federal government to impose taxes and spend funds to "provide for ... the general welfare" -- at least if Alexander Hamilton and a number of Supreme Court rulings are to be believed. In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 13 million of the elderly into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism.
This approach undermines a large conservative achievement. Despite early misgivings about Social Security and the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan moved Republicans past Alf Landon's resistance to the New Deal, and Barry Goldwater's opposition to federal civil rights law, focusing instead on economic growth and national strength. A consistent "constitutionalism" would entangle Republicans in an endless, unfolding political gaffe -- opposing, in moments of candor, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the federal highway system and the desegregation of lunch counters.