Politics & Policy

What I Saw at CPAC

The values of the Mount Vernon Statement are alive and well, and not just among old, white Republicans.

I recently joined former attorney general Ed Meese and a number of other conservative leaders in signing the Mount Vernon Statement. When I watched the evening press coverage of the statement’s unveiling, I could tell how the media thought of the event: A bunch of white guys were reaffirming what some dead white guys said.

Never mind that all types were in the room. Never mind that thousands had signed the document online overnight. Never mind that the Mount Vernon Statement was a reaffirmation not just of the Founders’ constitutional values, but of the liberty-loving spirit in the air around the country right now — a mood that has inspired tea parties and turned books like Liberty and Tyranny into bestsellers, a mood rooted in a sense (and not just among trusted Reagan cabinet secretaries) that we may be on the brink of losing something that makes America who she is.

That sense was palpable the following day at an annual gathering of conservatives, the Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC had not been convened in Washington, D.C., for an hour before Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees, took the stage and blew away the older-white-guy lie. Rubio, who is running for U.S. Senate in Florida, is challenging the current Republican governor for the seat, and doing so by talking with a sense of urgency about what America could be on the verge of losing. His words could have been ripped from the Mount Vernon Statement, which, fundamentally, simply reaffirmed constitutional principles in a way that very few people who consider themselves conservatives — who, in other words, want to conserve much of the treasures we’ve inherited — could disagree with.

The statement reads, in part:

We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government. . . . Each one of these founding ideas is presently under sustained attack. In recent decades, America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics. The self-evident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist. The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.

I suspect Marco Rubio hadn’t time to read the statement before he took his stage, but he didn’t need to. He has read the Founding documents, and he knows how they have helped make America great. And when he looks around, he sees — even in his own state — politicians and elected officials slouching toward something different: a push toward statism. Out with the flourishing of freedom, in with a behemoth of a welfare state. And Rubio doesn’t like it, because he knows history and he knows how harmful that instinct has been. He knows, furthermore, that the American identity leans toward and hungers for something else, which is why he referred in his CPAC speech to the upcoming congressional elections as being  about our “identity” as a nation.

He received a rock star’s welcome at the conference — if I had a dollar for everyone who told me they got to shake his hand, I would be retiring at my young age. It wasn’t because he’s a fresh new face; it was because what he says rings true. It strikes a chord with Americans who believe that there is something special about their country that, as Rubio puts it, keeps boatloads of people wanting to be a part of us.

In his speech to the same gathering, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney put it this way: “Ours is the creed of the pioneers, the innovators, the strivers who expect no guarantee of success, but ask only to live and work in freedom. This creed is under assault in Washington today. Liberals are convinced that government knows better than the people how to run our businesses, how to choose winning technologies, how to manage health care, how to grow an economy, and how to order our very lives. They want to gain through government takeover what they could never achieve in the competitive economy — power and control over the people of America. If these liberal neo-monarchists succeed, they will kill the very spirit that has built the nation — the innovating, inventing, creating, independent current that runs from coast to coast.”

Those are not Republican values, Mormon values, or white-millionaire values. They are rooted in a deeper national consensus than that. They’re the same values that got Scott Brown elected in a state not known for being a bastion of Republican voters. They’re the values upon which we were founded. They’re the values that are sparking a renewal of civic engagement around the country. They’re the values that are inspiring men and women across the country to ask themselves what they can do — even beyond raising the next generation to believe these things are worth respecting and fighting for to ensure that they exist beyond their own lifetimes. And, yes, they’re values that even some white guys who worked for President Reagan love. And thank goodness for what they’ve done to help preserve them, here and around the world. With gratitude I join them, and I’m not alone.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com.

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