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Constitutionally speaking, Reagan was tops

Created on September 14, 2009

Constitutionally speaking, Reagan was tops

Constitution Goes Missing from Language of Our Presidents, Lawmakers

By Ken McIntyre

The tens of thousands of Americans who traveled to Washington over the weekend to protest profligate government spending didn't just exercise their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and ask that wrongs be set right.

Taxpayers and voters also demonstrated a healthy understanding that the Constitution is on their side.

"We want our country to go back to the roots of doing what our Founding Fathers wanted us to do -- less government in every aspect of my life," Debbie Wilson, 51, of Apollo Beach, Fla., told The Washington Post.

"We want our freedom back," Gary Brown, 53, of Greer, S.C., told The Washington Times. "The Constitution is the law of the land. We don't need lawyers to interpret it. Get out of our lives."

Terri Hall, 45, of Starke, Fla., told USA Today that the hundreds of billions in new spending by President Barack Obama and Congress compelled her to get politically active for the first time. "Our government has lost sight of the powers they were granted," she said.

Such anecdotal evidence of renewed public attention to the Constitution's provisions for a central government of limited powers should be heartening. Not just to constitutional scholars at The Heritage Foundation, but to anyone who believes debates over the federal government's role in our lives ought to begin with the document that specified the powers of that government.

"Americans want certain problems in the health care system solved, but it is doubtful they want those problems 'solved' in a way that does violence to key foundational principles of American political life," student of government Andrew E. Busch wrote a year ago, well before the current hubbub.

The reminders over the weekend from everyday people, taking a stand for liberty outside the U.S. Capitol, were particularly apt. This year the too-little-celebrated Constitution Day falls on Thursday, Sept. 17 -- with events at Heritage and elsewhere.

One thread clearly connects the Washington rally with April's "tea party" demonstrations against runaway spending and taxes and the summer's "town hall" protests of a huge government intrusion into health care: Americans are insisting that elected leaders reacquaint themselves with the Constitution.

"Is the Constitution a vibrant reality shaping policy debates," as Busch asks, "or is it a dead letter to our public officials?"

Busch, an associate professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, argues that the declining role of the Constitution in public discourse over the past 75 years -- from the president and Congress down to those who mix it up at community meetings -- has not been good for America.

"Ultimately, constitutional government requires a constitutional conversation that includes the people and their representatives," Busch writes. "Failure to sustain such a conversation ... will contribute to the constitutional illiteracy of the nation."

Only three presidents since 1934 averaged more than 10 references to the Constitution in each State of the Union speech: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. (As Heritage's chart shows, Reagan was the runaway leader with an average of 16 per address.)

George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses averaged a mere three references -- and his rate per 1,000 words tied with Bill Clinton for lowest of any modern president.

The discouraging trend -- not just in presidential communication but in congressional debates -- follows "the ascent of Progressive and New Deal philosophies that systematically downplayed the importance of strict adherence to the Constitution," Busch writes.

Today, the Web's growing blogosphere, he predicts, offers "some hope for a return of written argument" to reach the public about the need to protect and defend the Constitution.

In February, President Barack Obama didn't make a single reference to the Constitution in his first address to a joint session of Congress, notes Matthew Spalding, director of Heritage's Simon Center for American Studies, who recently went over the speech again.

"The federal government has lost many of its moor­ings and today acts with little concern for the limits in the Constitution," Spalding writes. "As a result, growing numbers are dependent on government ben­efits and entitlements. Many of our political leaders are rudderless, speaking in vague generali­ties and mired in small-minded politics and petty debates.

"As a nation, we are left divided about our own meaning, unable -- perhaps unwilling -- to defend our ideas, our institutions and ourselves."

Spalding adds:

"The change we need, the change consis­tent with the American idea, is not movement away from but toward our principles ... . And so as we look ahead, we must also look back, not as a matter of historical curiosity, but as a guide for our nation. What we seek is renewal."

Ken McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.