Pence: Evangelizing for a Constitutional Reawakening
I serendipitously happened on to a speech that Mike Pence delivered at Hillsdale a few months ago on the presidency and the Constitution, which was very timely, given the current White House occupant’s routine abuse of executive authority.
I’ve known for some time that Pence is a serious and substantive guy, but was particularly impressed with this speech and wanted to share a few thoughts about it. In a site search I discovered that Professor Rahe had written about the speech on Big Government.com, which he earlier linked on Ricochet. I’ll read his piece shortly.
Pence’s speech deserves attention because it is an eloquent and stirring call to a return to first principles. Many of us expend a great deal of energy criticizing liberals for their cynical disregard for the Constitution as written. But I don’t think we spend enough time making the affirmative case that the framers purposely structured our government to achieve the proper balance between the power of government and individual liberties. They were learned students of history and statecraft, and proceeded largely from a worldview that recognized the fallen human condition. They understood that investing the government with too little or too much power would jeopardize liberty. “If men were angels,” they wouldn’t have had to pit the branches and levels of government against each other in an effort to “oblige government to control itself,” and avoid tyranny.
Pence affirms that our republican government is one of laws, not men, which was designed to avoid the development and elevation of a ruling class that operates above the law or outside its established constitutional constraints.
In his speech, Pence argues, in effect, for a reawakening of our first principles and a return to true constitutional governance. He reminds us that like the framers, we must not place our hope in our fellow mortals, but in adherence to a system that best accommodates the human condition so as to maximize our liberties.
He says that instead of operating as a check on each other, the executive and legislative branches, being dominated by a single party, have formed an “unholy unity,” and this “political class has raged forward in a drunken expansion of powers and prerogatives, mistakenly assuming that to exercise power is by default to do good." (Think of Obama’s post election delusion: “The American people did not vote for gridlock.”) Pence continues:
A republic is about limitation, and for good reason, because we are mortal and our actions are imperfect. … That is why you must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness. For all greatness is tempered by mortality, every soul is equal, and distinctions among men cannot be owned; they are on loan from God, who takes them back and even accounts at the end. …
The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide or ruler. He does not command us; we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision. It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law, and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others. It is neither his job nor his prerogative to shift the power of decision away from them, and to him and the acolytes of his choosing. …
No one can say this too strongly, and no one can say it enough until it is remedied. We are not subjects; we are citizens. We fought a war so that we do not have to treat even kings like kings, and—if I may remind you—we won that war. Since then, the principle of royalty has, in this country, been inoperative. Who is better suited or more required to exemplify this conviction, in word and deed, than the President of the United States? …
The powers of the presidency are extraordinary and necessarily great, and great presidents treat them sparingly. …
A sensibility such as this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline, and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic, but life itself. It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself; that his eye is not upon his own prospects but on the storm of history, through which he must navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed on those powers both by man and by God. …
A president who slights the Constitution is like a rider who hates his horse: he will be thrown, and the nation along with him. The president solemnly swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. He does not solemnly swear to ignore, overlook, supplement, or reinterpret it. Other than in a crisis of existence, such as the Civil War, amendment should be the sole means of circumventing the Constitution. For if a president joins the powers of his office to his own willful interpretation, he steps away from a government of laws and toward a government of men. …
Would it be such a great surprise that a good part of the political strife of our times is because one president after another, rather than keeping faith with it, argues with the document he is supposed to live by? This discontent will only be calmed by returning the presidency to the nation’s first principles. The Constitution and the Declaration should be on a president’s mind all the time, as the prism through which the light of all question of governance passes. Though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. And who better than the president to restore this wholesome devotion to limited government?
Pence's words reveal a refreshingly stark contrast between his adult approach to limited, republican government and Obama's statist ends-oriented manipulations -- especially in an age when arrogant politicians have become so far removed from their roots that they don't ever pause to consider, before acting, whether they have the constitutional authority to act.
You surely remember the bizarre string of quotes from various Democratic senators and congressmen when asked by reporters under what authority they legislated Obamacare. Most were aghast that anyone would even dare question their legislative omnipotence. That's one of the many reasons that Pence's call for a restoration of our founding principles was so gratifying -- and encouraging.