Michele Bachmann really wants you to know she’s a “constitutional conservative.” The term is featured prominently on her web ads. She mentioned it three times in her announcement speech. It’s in the first sentence of her official bio. But what exactly does it mean? While the term can signify different things to different people, it turns out it’s especially important to Bachmann. As a candidate who doesn’t want to get confined to a social conservative ghetto in an election year that is revolving around fiscal and economic issues—and as someone with a well-earned reputation for extremism—her strong “constitutional conservative” stance indicates, but only to those who are trained to listen, a decidedly radical agenda that is at least as congenial to rabid social conservatives as it is to property-rights absolutists or anti-tax zealots. In short, it enables her to run as a middle-of-the-road conservative who just wants to get rid of ObamaCare and balance the budget, even as she lets the initiated know she has other, more ambitious, plans for the country.
Despite the growing ubiquity of the “constitutional conservative” identifier in the Tea Party movement and the right-wing blogosphere, there’s no authorized definition of the term and some who proudly wear the label doubtless disagree about its meaning. Adam J. White of the Weekly Standard attributes its recent emergence to an influential 2009essay in the Wall Street Journal by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz. The Berkowitz formulation did indeed focus on the need for Republicans to return to first principles, with “the constitutional order” providing the key optic. But he also called “moderation” in the pursuit of liberty an essential constitutional concept, which is not a term one would normally associate with Michele Bachmann or Constitution-brandishing Tea Party activists.