Preserve, Protect, Defend: The Heart of the Tea Party

Ralph Benko
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Posted: Sep 28, 2011 12:01 AM

An old acquaintance of mine, a passionate progressive, gave away the game in a recent conversation when he said, contemptuously, “Your people (by which he meant the Tea Party) are idiots for fetishizing the Constitution.  Everybody knows that it’s just an artifact.”  A stunning proposition and stated with such refreshing candor. 

Does the Constitution still matter? Time Magazine asked that question in a recent cover story featuring a half-shredded copy of our national charter. 

Cat’s out of the bag?

The Time story had consequences. Will history record it as the provocation, the spark that lit a fuse, of a kind of new American revolution?  It moved Federalist Society founder/Bradley Foundation Genius Award winner, and former Congressman, David McIntosh into a primary election to unseat Republican Old Bull Dan Burton, in Indiana.

What matters is: why… and how?

Two races are going to matter in 2012.  One is, of course, the race for the presidency.  But the president only can navigate in the political space defined by Congress.  The other, and more important, race is the struggle for control of the national legislature.  Is it going to be politics as usual?   Or is it going to be an extension of the 2010 Tea Party Patriot-inflected populist struggle to constrain the powers of the ruling elite and re-assert the representative nature of government.

McIntosh, while an unflinching conservative, is featuring a populist, rather than conservative, theme:  “send me as your messenger to ‘take our message, our voices, the news, that the people are back in charge to every corridor and back room in Washington.’”  He seems to be challenging the incumbent not as bad but as a remnant, almost regal, of a past, now irrelevant, political epoch:  that of the Imperial Congress. That era’s over.

McIntosh features a neglected icon, the Oath of Office, in his stump speech.

When you sent me to Congress last time, I took a sacred oath under the Capital Dome and inside every courthouse in my District:

‘I, David McIntosh, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same….  So help me God.’

That oath to support and defend our great Constitution is the first and most important duty of our elected officials. Because it is the Constitution that guarantees our freedoms.

McIntosh then gets very specific.  What does it mean to support and defend the Constitution?  The Constitution allocates powers and protects certain fundamental rights. McIntosh enumerates some of the rights now under assault which he is, by taking the Oath of Office, swearing to defend.

Free speech.  Proto-fascist progressive groups are trying to impose censorship under the weird theory that corporations are not entitled to free speech.  (The first Amendment, “Congress shall make no law … abridging freedom of speech….”  is a plenary prohibition on Congress without an exception for corporations.)   Freedom of assembly? 

How dare Nancy Pelosi call citizens peaceably assembling to petition their government for the redress of grievances a “mob?”  The right to not be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law?  How dare the Congress not protect the lives of unborn persons, how dare it vote to take over our healthcare system, bail out their Wall Street cronies with our money, tell us what kind of light bulbs we can buy, tell us whom to hire, shutter our farms, mines and factories?   A pro-growth economic plan: the Constitution calls for a gold standard.

This rap is not your typical conservative rhetoric.  It is a new political language, emerging from the Tea Party: constitutional populism.  Does the Constitution give the government power to act?  If not, don’t.  The Constitution protects a citizen’s rights?  Then stop trampling them!

But that was just McIntosh’s table ante.  He amps it up by an order of magnitude.  He administers the oath right back to his listeners — creating an  “Oath of Office” for the most ancient and noble office in a Republic: Citizen.

"Please, whether you support my candidacy or not, stop now and take the oath with me.

‘I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of a citizen. So help me God.’

People being prompted by candidates (and officials) to discharge the duties of a citizen … rather than depending on, or getting soaked or bossed by, the government?  This is game changing. This is the heart of the Tea Party Patriots’ message:  the power, and duty, of the citizens over the government.

Memo to Time:  the Constitution matters.  As radical is as McIntosh actually taking the Constitution seriously, as radical as is McIntosh taking seriously his oath to defend it; making the demand that the people rise to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America is an act of far more radical integrity.


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