After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1
We are not now quite at a founding moment, or even a re-founding moment. But we have arrived at a genuine crisis, or a set of crises, and we may well be at a decisive moment for the country.
This sense of crisis is what animates the Tea Parties. I had the pleasure of attending the “Proud to be an American July 4th Tea Party” outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It featured patriotic songs and speeches, and expressions of support for our troops and praise for our country. Yet the mood of patriotic gratitude was mixed with expressions of alarm from my fellow Tea Partiers about the administration now in charge of our government. The combination of patriotic gratitude and urgent alarm produces a determination to act and a willingness to deal boldly with the crises in the economy, in foreign policy, and in self-government that the country faces.
In this respect, the Tea Parties are ahead of the two major parties. As established political parties are wont to do, both remain constricted in their views, attached to business as usual, and invested in established modes and orders—too much so to easily come to grips with a moment like the present.
Of course, the leaders of the Democratic party don’t want to come to grips with the present moment. Committed to stale progressive policies, they’re doing their very best to push more of them through, even as the failure of those policies becomes ever more evident. Serious reflection on the failure of their favored policies, both at home and abroad, would be too painful. It would require a rethinking too consequential and too disruptive to be willingly undertaken. After all, experience has shown that liberals are more disposed to have the rest of us suffer, than to right themselves by rethinking the dogmas by which they are enthralled.
But it’s increasingly clear that “the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government,” in our case welfare state liberalism, is no longer sufferable. Out-of-control spending and debt really do threaten our economic future. Weakness and timidity abroad really do threaten a world in which terrorists and fanatics possess, and use, nuclear weapons. The nanny state, at once all-intrusive and all thumbs, really does threaten the future of self-government. The dogmas of multiculturalism really do threaten the strength of a free society.
I was telling a friend about the Philly Tea Party, noting a few eccentric proposals from some of its participants. He commented, “Well, that’s better than talking points.” He’s right. At this moment, bold and seemingly impolitic or impractical ideas are more useful than the diligent repetition of mostly sensible short-term critiques and proposals. At a moment like this, talking points are not enough.
That’s the challenge for the Republican party. It is of course a real, existing political party, with real existing responsibilities. So it has to do the day-to-day work of a loyal opposition—helping Generals Petraeus, Mattis, and Odierno to win the wars we’re fighting and which we certainly can’t afford to lose, resisting foolish Obama administration programs and appointments, proposing legislation and amendments that would improve public policy or at least highlight the difference between the two parties.
But the GOP can be the party of the future as well as the present. It can be the party of fundamental reflection and radical choice as well as the party of day-to-day criticism and opposition. This isn’t easy. It can lead to mistakes and missteps, tensions and confusions. But it’s what the moment requires.