Constitutionally speaking, Reagan was tops
Created on September 14, 2009
Constitution Goes Missing from Language of Our
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
"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
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
"Is the Constitution a vibrant reality shaping policy debates,"
as Busch asks, "or is it a dead letter to our public
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
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
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
"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