In a short essay, New York Times editorialist Lincoln Caplan considers the increasingly popular conservative rallying cry, "constitutional conservatism." Caplan unsurprisingly tries to characterize the term as purely negative: "The phrase is used mainly in opposition," a response to perceived "danger" posed by liberal "solutions." Caplan tries to define the term as radical ("the phrase is connected to a radical vision") while simultaneously suggesting that the term hardly has a meaning at all ("the statement is a vague, highly selective catchall"). And ironically, he urges his readers not to "dismiss this increasingly used rallying cry," even while his own analysis turns the term into a straw man.
In fact, the term "constitutional conservative" need not be deemed negative, radical, or vague. Rather than starting, as Caplan does, with John Boehner, Sarah Palin, and "Tea Party members," Caplan should have started with the Hoover Institution's Peter Berkowitz, who may well have sparked the term’s modern emergence nearly two years ago in a Wall Street Journal essay, which he subsequently expanded into a Policy Review essay, appropriately titled, "Constitutional Conservatism."
Berkowitz – who one could not easily define as negative, radical, or vague – laid out constitutional conservatism not merely in terms of "liberty" but also "moderation." He urged conservatives to focus not merely on limited government but also on energetic government, invoking George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism no less than Goldwater's libertarianism.
And far from embracing right-wing radicalism, Berkowitz urged conservatives not to pursue "greater purity in conservative ranks" in either social conservative or libertarian terms. Citing public opinion polls, he urged that "down that path lies disaster."
Regardless of whether Berkowitz's moderate vision is shared by many or most "movement" conservatives, the fact remains that his vision of "constitutional conservatism" is a far cry from the radical, reactionary meaning assigned to the term by Caplan.