President Obama embraces Constitution. Conservatives freak out.

Given their supposed passion for the Constitution, you would think that conservatives would have welcomed President Obama’s repeated references to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence during his Inaugural Address on Monday.

And in fact, a few have. Newt Gingrich, for example, acknowledged in Human Events: “I was surprised how much President Obama had to say that I agreed with. His theme of making ‘real for every American’ the promise of our Declaration — ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ –  is central to the Republican credo. What Republican could dispute that?”

On the Far Right, however, it seems as if the very idea of a progressive politician rooting his arguments in the words of the Founding was enough to set heads on fire.

Right-wing commentators warn their fellow conservatives not to be lulled into complacency by the President’s clever “use” of the Founders’ language:

Matthew Spalding, writing for Heritage’s The Foundry:

In his speech, Obama uses many conservative phrases to cloak his intentions and wraps his project in the mantle of the Founding. But we mustn’t be fooled. He deploys those words to serve his own brand of progressive radicalism—and radical it is…

Rep. Paul Ryan, on the Laura Ingraham Show:

The president is a proud and confident liberal progressive. He invoked the Constitution and Declaration at times, which is something everybody likes to hear, especially conservatives. But he invoked them sort of as a means to legitimize the agenda he has going forward, which is very partisan, very ideological, for sure.

Phillip Klein, in the Washington Examiner:

President Obama’s attempt during his second inaugural address to wrap his expansionist vision of government in the language of the nation’s founding is nothing new. He has been doing this ever since he gained national recognition for his soaring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a state senator.

Rich Lowry, in National Review:

All in all, it was a brazen performance… He used the Founders’ authority to advance an expansive conception of American government that would have been unrecognizable to them.

What’s striking about these statements isn’t the accusations that a vast left-wing conspiracy is afoot. This isn’t the first time that the President quoted Jefferson and conservatives heard only Marx. It probably won’t be the last.

What is most striking in these statements is the pervading sense of conservative ownership of the Constitution—the idea that even our Founders’ most broad, familiar words (“We the People…” and “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”) are properly understood to be conservative phrases, and are misused in any other context. 

Once again, only Gingrich seemed to recognize that our founding documents are not designed to be the end of a great debate, but the beginning, writing: “President Obama may very well draw something different from that passage than we would, but that’s the heart of the argument we’re about to have.”

That’s the debate that we should be having: not whether one party owns the Constitution, but what the Constitution means.

We here at CAC welcome that discussion.