After months of flag-waving, sign-holding, and speechifying on the Capitol lawn, there's something revolutionary about a conservative tea party in the literal sense—a bunch of old conservatives standing around drinking tea.
That was the scene Wednesday afternoon inside the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism in Alexandria, Va., where some of Washington's most influential conservatives gathered for the unveiling of a declaration of conservative principles dubbed the Mount Vernon Statement. After some introductory remarks and an official reading of the statement, attendees queued up to sign giant white boards featuring pasted-on faux parchment print-outs while a man dressed as George Washington looked on. (The online version currently has 7,500 signatures and counting.)
The statement is, by its own admission, nothing new. It simply "restates the ideas of the American founding as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," said former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, who served as master of ceremonies.
The tone, however, is one of renewed urgency—especially when read in Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner Jr.'s best Founding Father baritone: "The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant." If those weren't fighting words already, the statement explicitly rejects President Obama's rhetoric of "change." "Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new," it says. "But where would this lead—forward or backward, up or down? … The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles."
Based on the audience, "change" wasn't much of a threat anyway. The attendees were, like their ideas, vintage. When conservative leaders gathered at the home of William F. Buckley in 1960 to sign the Sharon Statement—the predecessor to and inspiration for the Mount Vernon Statement—they called it "the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths." "Today, they are, let's say, mature conservatives," joked Meese. Indeed, of the 18 initial signatories—including Meese, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, American Spectator Publisher Alfred Regnery, and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist—the average age was probably in the low 60s.
Aside from the "change" jab, however, the statement is remarkably uncontroversial: "Constitutional conservatism … applies the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal." Liberals might not describe themselves as seeking "limited government," but they're certainly not against the "rule of law." It "honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life." Who doesn't want individual liberty? (One could argue that universal health care expands liberty, rather than restricting it.) It asserts a "firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith." America's anti-family, anti-neighborhood, anti-community, and anti-faith groups have yet to weigh in. If it weren't for the needling, Obama might even sign the darn thing.
Which is kind of the point. The document is written overbroadly with inclusivity in mind. "A lefty can't sign on, knowing what the words mean," says Norquist. "But 70 percent of Americans go, Yeah." Obama knows this as much as anyone. "When he ran for office, that's what he said," says Norquist, pointing to the statement. "When he governs, no. I'd've voted for him if I believed what he was saying." The statement also implicitly rebuts the notion that the conservative movement is fracturing. Per the statement, all forms of conservatism are codependent: Constitutional conservatism "reminds 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." Says Norquist: "This points out that on the key issues, there's a lot more unity there than people on the outside might think."
What this all means policywise was left for another day. Like, say, Thursday. That's when a coalition of Tea Party activists will launch the "Contract From America," a list of 22 policy ideas that will eventually be whittled down to 10. (The list includes both "stop the tax hikes" and "demand a balanced budget.") Meanwhile, other conservative mission statements are also in the works. Newt Gingrich reportedly has a new contract in the works, as does House Minority Leader John Boehner.
But at the rate of one influential conservative mission statement every five decades, there's no rush. "This is something the conservative movement will be happy with 10 years from now, 50 years from now," Norquist says. Even if most of the original signers won't be around to enjoy it.