Mr. President, Don’t Forget the Founders

While pundits have already picked through the bones of last Wednesday’s debate in Denver – from Big Bird, to Mitt 3.0, to our disappointingly dour President – one exchange hasn’t received adequate attention: the candidates’ dueling responses to Jim Lehrer’s question on the “mission of the federal government.”

Here, the problem wasn’t that the President was off his game or that Governor Romney suddenly discovered the “Real Mitt,” but rather that the President ran a standard play from the progressive playbook – a play that demonstrated progressives’ general reluctance to root our arguments in the Constitution and its history.  As a result, the President let Governor Romney claim the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence without a fight.

To see what I mean, let’s begin with Governor Romney’s response to Lehrer’s question.  When asked about the “role of government,” Romney pivoted predictably, immediately, and quite sensibly to the Constitution and the Declaration. 

“Look behind us,” Romney began, gesturing to the debate’s physical backdrop.  “The role of government,” he said, simply and directly, “is to promote and protect the principles of those documents” – “the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”  Romney then went on to offer his vision of a federal government that would keep us safe, respect religious freedom, care for the less fortunate, and protect the right of all Americans to pursue their dreams.  In other words, he ran the standard conservative playbook – moving from the Constitution, its history, and its underlying principles to present-day issues, concerns, and policy prescriptions.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Governor Romney’s response wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg Address.  Indeed, like so many of his statements, this one appeared to be carefully calibrated to say as little as humanly possible – in this case, to satisfy his tea party allies without explicitly endorsing their radical, limited-government agenda.  Even so, like Abraham Lincoln more than a century earlier and like so many of the Governor’s fellow conservatives today, Romney understood the political resonance of our Nation’s founding texts – powerful sources that allow him to both energize his base and appeal to the wider electorate. 

In contrast, when asked for the “mission of the federal government,” the President ignored the Constitution and the Declaration, instead offering a few general principles followed by the real-world effects of his policies.  In particular, the President discussed the importance of national security, equal opportunity, and education.  In other words, the President ran the standard progressive playbook – focusing exclusively on policy principles and real-world effects.

Substantively, the President was spot-on.  The federal government does have an important role to play in keeping our nation safe, securing equal opportunity for all, and improving our schools.  And the President even used Abraham Lincoln – a powerful historical example – to bolster this argument.  Nevertheless, the question itself – which focused on the “mission of the federal government” – screamed out for something more, an account that linked the President’s general principles and appealing policy prescriptions to a larger narrative about the Constitution, its progressive history, and who we are as a people.  While Lincoln is a powerful symbol, so, too, are the Founders and their key texts.  And, although the President made effective use of Lincoln at the debate, he missed out on an opportunity to broaden his argument to reclaim the Founding, as well.

Take the President’s riff on equal opportunity, for instance.  There, he quite rightly focused on the importance of creating “ladders of opportunity” and “frameworks” for success – a core progressive message.  However, even while getting the substance right, he missed a key opportunity to root this argument in the powerful language of the Declaration, language that was literally quoted on the backdrop behind him.

Of course, the Declaration says that “all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Governor Romney is surely correct that part of the Declaration’s vision is to ensure that all Americans can pursue their dreams, individually and with minimal government interference.  However, the Declaration’s vision isn’t simply one of radical individualism.  Instead, the Declaration itself calls for a government capable of “secur[ing]” our most cherished rights and, in so doing, promoting equal opportunity for all to enjoy them.  Indeed, the Declaration should inspire our government to create frameworks for success and ladders of opportunity for all, not pursue policies that further entrench the rich and the powerful.

Furthermore, this vision of equality doesn’t end with the Declaration.  It runs throughout our Nation’s history – from 1776 to the Gettysburg Address to the Fourteenth Amendment to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”  In practice, it includes Lincoln’s effort – cited by the President last Wednesday night – to establish land grant colleges, as well as his generation’s unprecedented (if too brief) attempt to promote civil rights.  But, those achievements were part of an even longer progressive tradition – one that began with the Founders’ decision to create a national government with the power to address national problems, and one that has continued with each successive generation’s efforts to “form a more perfect Union.” 

Indeed, over the last two centuries, “We the People” have amended our Constitution to end slavery, secure equality for all persons, and expand the right to vote.  In addition, we’ve worked together, within our Constitution’s framework, to establish Social Security, build an interstate highway system, end Jim Crow, and create Medicare.

Finally, for this intergenerational project to continue, we must have a federal government that helps ensure that our schools are filled with great teachers, that protects consumers from corporate abuses, that requires equal pay for equal work, that checks Wall Street when it strays, that guarantees quality health care for everyone (including those with preexisting conditions), and that funds a social safety net for those most in need.  Above all, it requires a President who is willing to fight to make sure that all Americans have an equal opportunity, in the real world, to enjoy the sacred rights enshrined in Jefferson’s Declaration – rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the end, the Founding is a powerful source of authority and inspiration for countless Americans – a source that that progressives have largely ceded to conservatives over time, but that, moving forward, the President and his progressive allies can easily incorporate into their larger vision for our federal government.  Indeed, the Founders’ vision is consistent with the President’s vision (and that of his progressive allies), that there are “some things we do better together” – in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our states, and, yes, through our federal government.

Therefore, when conservatives like Paul Ryan say that they “will not try to replace our founding principles,” but instead “will reapply them,” progressives should respond by pledging their fidelity to the Constitution – the one that the Founders designed 225 years ago, that later generations improved, and that provides us with the power to come together as one Nation to solve our biggest problems and ensure equal opportunity for all. 

In short, we should stop ceding the Founders and their key texts to conservatives.  Instead, we should begin to reclaim them as our own.