When Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence, moderates the Palmetto Freedom Forum on Monday, he won’t ask about deep-dish pizza. Instead, he will urge GOP presidential contenders, as he does his students, to explore their constitutional beliefs. “The idea is to break the mold, to get away from the standard, media-run debates with their gotcha questions,” he says in a phone interview. In turn, he hopes, the candidates will drop “their stump speeches and canned answers.”
George, a Roman Catholic scholar who frequently teaches a course with liberal favorite Cornel West, will be sharing his duties with a pair of tea-party Republicans, Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.). Both men are considered GOP kingmakers in their respective states. George, for his part, is a kingmaker of a different sort, an academic titan with deep ties to the conservative movement.
How candidates respond to George’s queries, which will focus on the political and philosophical, could shake up a primary season that, so far, has been dominated by platitudes. The race for the GOP nomination, he says, is often cast as a scramble for the highly coveted but nebulous tea-party crown. But few voters, he laments, have a sense of how leading Republicans interpret the principles that inspire tea-party activists.
George aims to clarify the often blurry positions of Republican candidates on issues of political, moral, and philosophical importance. If they give him a stock or evasive response, he will follow up with sharper questions. It won’t be a fishing expedition for red-hot quotes, he emphasizes, but a quest for paragraph-length answers about America’s founding principles in an office-hours-type setting.
George has been grappling with these issues for years. At Princeton, he directs the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He also served on the President’s Council on Bioethics during the George W. Bush administration, and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. As an author, he has written numerous books on natural law, public morality, and civil liberties. As a political figure, he co-chairs the National Organization for Marriage.
But his most recent endeavor is the American Principles Project, which he founded. The non-profit organization is sponsoring the Labor Day event. In coming months, he would like to see the group continue to serve as a resource for presidential candidates, assisting them and their staffs with questions on the “principles that are articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution — and those principles of Western civilization that are presupposed by what is expressed in those documents.”
“Even though the challenges we face are, in some ways, unprecedented, we believe the answer is not to look for new principles, but to promote a renewed fidelity to our old principles, to the founding principles,” George says. “This is not anything unique. It is also the same sentiment that gave rise to the Tea Party, which has gotten a lot of Americans thinking again about the Constitution and what it means to be a self-governing people in a regime of republican and limited government.”
In George’s view, the forum, which will be held in Columbia, S.C., will be a moment of reflection for the candidates, who can more often be found sitting in front of remote television cameras doing cable-television hits or hurried press gaggles. Each candidate — Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain — will face questions individually and have 22 minutes to ruminate, explain, and muse.
“We’ll give all of the candidates an opportunity to demonstrate A, the depth of their understanding of the principles of our civilization and democratic republic, and B, the strength of their determination to actually govern in line with those principles, if elected president,” George says. The format is unusual, he acknowledges, but it’s hardly unprecedented. In 2008, he notes, Pastor Rick Warren, a national evangelical leader, discussed religious and moral issues with the presidential nominees of both parties.
At Warren’s Saddleback Ranch, John McCain and Barack Obama were pressed, in individual sit-down interviews, to flesh out their beliefs on core questions. Those sessions, he says, were useful and interesting, two qualities rarely seen in major-network presidential debates. “That gave Warren an opportunity to push the media out of the way,” George chuckles. “There were serious questions.”
George knows that many reporters are not interested in hearing three conservatives question a field of conservative candidates. That doesn’t bother him. He respects the press, he says, but the problems facing the country demand more than a “quick fix” or snazzy responses to big problems. This forum will not solve any of the fiscal and moral crises facing the country, but it will be a step in that direction, he says.
“I think people are aware that things are not right,” George says. “They are not technical problems to be solved by choosing the best technocrat. . . . People have a sense that the problems run deeper than that, that they have to do, in a very significant measure, with a loss of fidelity over the years, a falling away from our own principles. . . . They are looking for a conversation that goes deeper.”
If anyone can stir such rumblings from the Republican pols, it’s George, who is not only a widely respected academic, but one of Princeton’s highest-rated teachers. He’s an expert at the Socratic method, a beloved conservative intellectual on a campus dotted with progressives. On Monday, the candidates had better be ready for class.
— Robert Costa is political reporter for National Review.