| April 1, 2011

Ed Meese initiative ‘one of the most significant of the Reagan years’

“Above all, Reagan’s conservatism was rooted in constitutionalism,” Steven F. Hayward wrote in the February 7 issue of National Review, “which is the aspect most closely connecting it with the Tea Party movement and the conservative challenge to Obama. Reagan understood that many of our problems descended from the decay of the Constitution’s restraints on the centralization of power in Washington. In one of his private letters, from 1979, Reagan wrote to a friend that “the permanent structure of our government with its power to pass regulations has eroded if not in effect repealed portions of our Constitution.” Hayward continues:

The story of the Reagan administration’s attempts to revive constitutional limits on government power is too complicated to summarize briefly, but one aspect of it deserves notice today: the second-term initiative of Attorney General Edwin Meese to start a controversy over originalism and the Constitution. In launching this controversy in such a high-profile manner, Meese reopened a fundamental quarrel that liberals had thought was more or less closed. No prominent Republican had seriously advanced such an argument since Calvin Coolidge. The public fight Meese started over original intent, legal scholar Johnathan O’Neill wrote in 2005, “constituted the most direct constitutional debate between the executive branch and the Court since the New Deal.” Meese and his Justice Department compatriots were attempting nothing less than to wrest the Constitution away from the legal elite and return it to the people. The reaction of not only the usual suspects such as the New York Times editorial page but also two sitting Supreme Court justices and many prominent voices in the legal academy ensured that this issue would not wilt like a spring flower, and indeed it is still with us. It was a de facto declaration of war on the Left, and it contributed to the defeat of Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987. It looks in retrospect to be one of the most significant initiatives of the Reagan years, especially given the emergence of the Tea Party movement.

Ed Meese is truly a great American. Come hear him May 30 in Lawton.

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