This article originally appears at The Moderate Voice
Pajamas Media paid my way to New Orleans last weekend to attend the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and I am just today recovered enough from my trip home on Sunday to write something about it.
The journey back to Chicago from New Orleans was actually more like an Icelandic Saga than the return leg of a round trip. The only thing missing is Odin hurling thunderbolts at the airplane, although we were lucky enough to actually fly through a Boomer when landing in Atlanta on Thursday.
I much prefer direct flights but that wouldn’t do for PJM. So off to Atlanta from Chicago I went on Thursday last week, failing to see the logic in traveling to the east coast in order to fly to a city located in the middle of the country. I’m sure it had to do with the “Hub” system that has been the death of air travel in America. At any rate, a one hour, forty five minute flight turned into a half day’s aggravation. As it was, I barely caught the connecting flight to New Orleans because we were late taking off from O’Hare.
But all that pales in comparison to the four airport, 3 airplane torture I was subjected to on Sunday. I spent more time in layovers - 4.5 hours - than I did in flight time - 4 hours. From New Orleans, I flew to Houston where a 2.5 hour layover awaited. Then, boarding a jump jet, we headed off to Dallas, another hour layover, and then the excruciating experience of being sandwiched between a man and a woman who were even larger than my 250 pound bulk for the final leg back to Chicago.
After spending the weekend endlessly walking through the conference venue, I spent Sunday endlessly walking through 4 airports. My legs almost fell off when I got home and even a hot bath didn’t help much.
Enough of my ordeal, what about the conference?
Partisans will see and hear what they want to, but I really did make an effort to step back and listen to the speeches and converse with delegates as someone not beholden to party or ideology. Some of what I heard disturbed me. Some things cheered me. Mostly, I was impressed with the confidence exuded by those present.
Is it misplaced? Some argue that the GOP has peaked too early, that the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts was the high water mark of the GOP comeback.
Forgive me if I find that laughably wishful thinking. The fact is, there is something happening in the hinterlands of America that those of us who spend our days wrapped in this little internet cocoon can barely fathom. Millions of people - not just Republicans or conservatives - are aroused. Many are angry but many more are worried. There is a widespread belief that the government of the United States has gone off the rails and is literally out of control. In short, what ever tenuous connection the people had with Washington has been broken.
Assigning blame is not my intent. In fact, the media narrative about the tea party people is so remarkably wrong, it would be humorous in almost any other context. Every single tea partier I talked to - and you couldn’t move in New Orleans without stepping on one - is as mad at the Republicans as they are the Democrats.
Every single one.
Even if they vote Republican in 2010, the GOP will be on notice; reform or it will be your turn to get kicked out. This attitude is reflected by the polls in that while GOP fortunes may have surged, the number of people who identify with the party has remained relatively constant - about 27% of the electorate. Voters have not forgiven Republicans their mistakes. For the GOP to assume otherwise and then get to Washington next year only to carry out their own spending plans, would be the height of folly.
This emotional reaction of the tea partiers and others who may identify with the movement but have no desire to join, has little to do with health care reform or even spending. Opposition to those issues are symptoms of a much broader concern; the unmooring of government from the tenets of the Constitution.
I wrote about this aspect in my PJ Media column on Sunday:
But there was also something most unusual about the conference: an uncommon amount of talk and discussion of the United States Constitution. Ordinary people from all walks of life, not a constitutional scholar or lawyer among them, are actually trying to come to grips with the fundamental meaning and purpose of our founding document.
Has such a thing happened since the debates over ratification? If the numbers of tea partiers can be believed — and they were omnipresent at this gathering — perhaps millions of citizens are reading the Constitution and trying to place the actions taken by our government within the confines of our founding document’s strictures. And judging by the numerous conversations I had with delegates, bloggers, and just ordinary folk, there is a profound feeling of unease about not just what Obama and the Democrats have done to expand the power of the federal government, but Republicans as well. Contrary to what the left would like to establish as conventional wisdom — that the tea party movement is a wholly partisan operation — the anger people are demonstrating about spending is directed at both parties, almost equally.
But becoming emotional about spending is only a symptom of what bothers most people. If you start to talk to them about spending, inevitably the conversation will turn to the Constitution and their understanding of how that document should be interpreted.
How dare they, you might say. What do they know about 221 years of constitutional law? What do they know about the great and important decisions of the Supreme Court that have defined, redefined, and reinterpreted our founding document through the decades? How can they possibly intelligently address the minutiae, the subtlety, the beautiful strands of logic that have painstakingly been built up, layer upon layer, as our civilization has groped with ways to live together in justice and peace?
It may seem to some a quaint exercise in good citizenship for these millions to wrestle with the such convoluted and complex questions as the meaning and reach of the commerce clause or the constitutionality of the individual mandate to buy health insurance. The condescension is misplaced — and totally unwarranted.
What’s really at work here is the mystery of faith and how it can not only move mountains, but perhaps save a country from its own foolishness.
The reason for this massive interest in the Constitution may be seen as an attempt to reconnect the people with their government. Childlike in its simplicity, this very serious concentration on our founding document by people from all walks of life is an attempt to try and understand what government is doing in the context of the only blueprint we have for how to keep our liberty. It has engaged the sensibilities of the public in a way not seen for a very long time.
Some of the speakers sought to take advantage of this re-examination of the Constitution by trying to make the point that the Obama administration, the Democrats, the liberals - all were actually against the Constitution and were seeking to take away the liberty of the people, to enslave them.
Texas Governor Rick Perry went so far as to define the powers of the federal government thusly: Perry believes the federal government’s responsibilities should be limited to:
Have a strong military, secure our borders, and deliver the mail on time. And that’s it. …
And until you can get those three right, how about leaving everything else alone?
Few in the tea party movement would go that far. And the ones who do could rightly be termed “anti-government” rather than small government conservatives.
There was also some worrying rhetoric about the ultimate loyalty and intentions of Obama and the Democrats. Here, many more if not most in the tea party movement agree that the Democrats are basically un-American with some going as far as saying that they want to ruin the country. This is, as I point out, the Age of the Ideologue in America so perhaps it’s understandable, if not a little depressing that this attitude is so widespread.
For now, the Republicans don’t quite know what to do with these people. They are of a different breed than other activists in that they don’t seem to want to give their loyalty to any party or party establishment. Eventually, this movement will be co-opted and absorbed by the GOP. But until then, they will give the Republican party leadership fits with their constant badgering about first principles and constitutional order.