Can a New Manifesto Woo the Tea Party?

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(From L. to R.): Michael Freeman / Corbis; David McNew / Getty

About a year ago — with the wounds of the Bush Administration fresh, a new President surging into office on a wave of enthusiasm, and Democrats in control of the Oval Office and both houses of Congress for the first time since the mid-'90s — the elder statesmen of the conservative movement had reason to feel uneasy. "I don't want to say that was a crisis, but it certainly was the impetus for a great deal of reflection," says conservative strategist Ralph Reed. "I think we did in fact go into exile." The fruits of that reflection were on display Wednesday, Feb. 17, when on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington, more than 80 conservative leaders gathered on the grounds of George Washington's former Virginia estate to unveil a manifesto reaffirming the movement's beliefs.

The "Mount Vernon Statement," as they have dubbed the document, seeks to tether conservatism to constitutional principles at a time when Republicans and many independents have become outraged over what they view as governmental overreach. Its authors, a group of boldface names and Beltway veterans who have been among the movement's leaders for decades, have been working for months to hash out language that satisfies the party's often fractious factions. They cite the compact as a contemporary version of the Sharon Statement, a document named for William F. Buckley Jr.'s Connecticut hometown that helped shape the contours of conservatism for the past 50 years. "We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding," the authors write. "The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant."

The group, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, pronounced itself thrilled with the manifesto. "On the right, we all want the same thing, and that's to be left alone," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who added that he was "pleasantly surprised" at how easy it was to craft a consensus document. "It sings," says Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, an organization that tracks perceived liberal bias in the media. "It has something that every conservative can sink his teeth into and sign happily."

In part that's because the document is light on policy specifics and heavy on freedom-loving boilerplate. Defining themselves as supporters of Founding Fathers is hardly risky; had the authors attempted to codify principles more controversial than "honor[ing] the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life" or "support[ing] America's national interest in advancing freedom," their interests could have clashed. For a movement whose social conservatives, fiscal warriors and national-security hawks have been roiled by infighting in the past, affirming common bonds may well have been the paramount concern.

But the document also afforded the authors a chance to define their mission as the Tea Party movement mushrooms into a potent force in American politics. With the Mount Vernon statement, conservatism's éminences grises are opening their doors to a group without a founder, an underlying framework or even, seemingly, an organizing principle beyond opposition to the Obama Administration's policies. "If you go out to these gatherings, you find a lot of [people] were never involved at all until they got scared by the direction of the country. Our obligation is not necessarily to lead them but to provide them a sense of what a logical conservative position will be," says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, which is hosting the CPAC conference. "It's vital that when people come into a movement, they're attracted to the core beliefs."

But conservative leaders were quick to note that they were not seeking to change a recipe that has thus far proved successful for the Tea Partyers, who have made it very clear that they don't want to be tied to any particular party or existing movement. "This is not meant to in any way suggest adult supervision," says Bozell. "That's condescending. This is meant to give some form of structure to all of this bursting energy that's out there." And while several conservatives said they believed Tea Partyers would naturally align under the conservative banner, they cautioned that the movement's support could not be taken for granted. "These new people distrust everybody," Keene says. "Republicans are carrying the burden and the baggage of the last time they were in power. People remember that. They have to be very careful about being consistent this time around if they want these people to rally to their cause electorally." While Sarah Palin has urged Tea Party independents to "I guess, start picking a party," the radicalism coursing through some of the Tea Party movement means even many Republican stalwarts don't measure up to their standards.

Conservatives seemed to make clear, though, that any alliance with the movement would have to be on the terms the manifesto has set forth. "You cannot dictate beliefs to people," Keene says. "What you can do is say, Here's a cohesive set of values and beliefs that have tied us together ... We'd love to have you share them with us." That sort of courtship, says conservative commentator David Frum, reflects the determination of the Beltway insiders to dig in their heels against efforts to remake a party they've helped build. "It's the last stand of the old guard," he says. "It looks to me like an attempt to reassert that the politics of the Reagan coalition can continue to win elections in 21st century America." By harking back to the past, he argues, the authors are also resisting the efforts of more-moderate conservatives (such as himself and the New York Times's David Brooks) to nudge the party closer to the political center.

The Mount Vernon Statement isn't the only manifesto making the rounds on Capitol Hill — a preliminary version of the Tea Party Patriots' Contract from America, a riff on Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, will be unveiled as the CPAC convention gets under way. But if these competing visions indicate a coming struggle for the soul of the party, they also indicate optimism, as groups vie to put their imprimatur on the movement at a time when Congress is paralyzed by gridlock, the Obama Administration's agenda is sputtering, and the midterm elections are shaping up as a favorable cycle for Republicans. Says Bozell: "So much for all those articles about conservatism being dead."