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Conservatism is About Limits

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 26, 2007

So at the rally, in addition to being able to speak to most of the other principals, I had the honor of speaking to David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union. I always like chatting with conservatives like Mr. Keene, because they tell it like it is. As he said, he doesn’t believe that there’s any ill-will on the part of those in the administration who worked on post-9/11 counter-terrorism policies. On the contrary, he said, it’s men and women who feel like they have a job to do, and whatever makes that job easier is the side they’re going to take.Though I think there are other ideological things going on here—most notably a push by certain conservative lawyers and academics to rejig the allocation of power among the three branches of government—I take his point. Notwithstanding that, I do believe, however, that the hardcore group of policy makers who masterminded the torture and detention policies at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and who forced the Military Commissions scheme first through secret channels to a presidential military order and then, when that was invalidated by the Court, down Congress’s throat were being other than diligent. That stuff smacks of wrath and malice.That said, Mr. Keene made another point, one which I think renders motive sort of irrelevant in terms of who did what and why.Conservatism is about limits, he said. It’s about recognizing that this is a complex society we live in with manifold and competing interests and needs, some of which are inconsistent, and some of which are in tension. There’s no question that liberty and security are in tension; that’s as old as humanity, let alone the United States. And yet, are they mutually exclusive? Perhaps, if one were to be completely honest, there are extreme situations where they might be such grave tension that one needs to err on the side of safety.But, that’s not now. Indeed, our Constitution expressly provides for such contingencies. Congress can suspend habeas corpus to meet emerging threats—but only during rebellion or invasions. During the constitutional debates, the framers changed the term “make” to “declare” when delineating Congress’s authority to initiate military conflict. Why? To ensure the president the ability to respond to “sudden attacks.” I mean, hell, the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in our homes foresaw armies marching across our countryside.The Constitution is a flexible document, and it is designed to allow us to meet threats to our security with necessary force and unified resolve. Yet, in its flexibility, it imposes essential limits, limits that this administration has overridden consistently and unapologetically. And that is truly where the Bush administration (and, the Washington Post tells us, especially Vice President Dick Cheney) part company from traditional conservatism. You see, habeas corpus, Gitmo, torture, due process—these are about limited government. And what is conservatism about, if not limited government?

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