A Republic, If You Can Keep It

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Mar 19, 2007 9:28 AM
A Republic, If You Can Keep It

News comes in from the fighting fronts in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the other day one heard a poignant story. It is about John McCain, campaigning yet again for president. There are reasons that might be given non-invidiously for saying no to McCain, primary among them his age. If he were nominated and elected, he would take the oath of office at age 72, and a recent poll tells us that no segment of the American electorate wants anyone that old as president. But it wasn't his age that caused the dissatisfaction with him at the assembly in question. It was, curses, the war in Iraq.

This was a company of Republican voters. They stood by affably when Sen. McCain ripped up the standard Democratic diversions, but they showed no enthusiasm for the trenchant Republican bidding for their presidential support. The applause was polite but punctilious. Along came the next speaker, Rudy Giuliani, who dived into the Iraq question as if it was a 9/11 bomber come into his sights. The enthusiasm was enormous.

It has become open-and-shut. There are many voters who do not want simply to drop the curtain on Iraq. But the number displaying acquiescence, let alone enthusiasm, for more of the same is approaching zero. Giuliani, while ferocious in his determination to defeat terrorists, distances himself from the Bush administration's optimistic predictions.

I think there is a sense in the land that the Iraqi people are not doing their part. It's true that Mr. al-Maliki has several times insisted on sharing the security burden more rigorously. And it is true that the Iraqi people are suffering mortally. The people who get killed every day by those insurgents are here and there an American soldier, an average of three per day. Mostly, though, the people who are getting killed are Iraqis. An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have left their homes and fled the country, exiled by the war. One cannot count that less than a major sacrifice.

Yet Americans feel that the Iraqis' sacrifice is disproportionately low, and the single reason for this is that it is also Iraqis who are causing the tribulation in which American soldiers are being wounded and killed. And there is no strategic plan, issuing from the White House, that apportions the sacrifice being made to goals being accomplished. There is no sense of the sun rising every day on freshly liberated soil.

The American voter has therefore no strategic expectation of finality, and it is because of this that congressional dissidents are having so much success in waving before the voters individual dates when, through the manipulation of appropriated funds, reduced numbers of Americans would be available to effect whatever it is that the administration intends to effect.

A better formula than that of Sen. McCain is needed. We have our republic -- if, as Benjamin Franklin cautioned at the close of the Constitutional Convention, we can keep it. The Constitution is a pretty orderly counting-house specifying jurisdictions, privileges and limitations. We have in the past six years fairly thoroughly rung up the presumptive authority of the chief executive to exercise the power of the military.

But there comes a time when rearward legions of a republic feel the need to assert their residual dominance, and we're getting very close to the moment when the people, surveying the policy, weighing its prospects, considering its benefits, step forward with their ultimate supremacy -- we are a republic. Scorning revolution, they do so gradually, but definitively.

The voters express themselves in manifold ways. Their representatives are taking small steps toward dissociation from the war, but warning of major steps. We have one-half of U.S. senators disposed to say that in their judgment the time is up. The only quarrel now is jurisdictional, not popular. The authority of the republic needs from time to time to be asserted. Not with the consent of everyone, but with the consent of everyone who accepts the rule of the people.