At Washington's homestead, conservative leaders tap into new energy

Former attorney general Edwin Meese III signs the guiding document as a George Washington impersonator looks on. The group calls for a return to limited government and to the Founders' ideals.
Former attorney general Edwin Meese III signs the guiding document as a George Washington impersonator looks on. The group calls for a return to limited government and to the Founders' ideals. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some of the nation's most prominent conservatives gathered Wednesday at a Virginia estate once owned by George Washington and called for a return to the principles of Washington's time to fight the political battles that lie ahead.

The conservative leaders unveiled and signed the "Mount Vernon Statement," a manifesto of conservative values that cites the Constitution and "the ideas of the American Founding." It is modeled after the 1960 Sharon Statement, signed at a meeting hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn., which helped usher in the modern conservative movement.

The document -- produced by the Conservative Action Project, a new group seeking to coordinate the latest movement -- says the nation's founders created a framework of limited government and "sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.

"Each of these founding ideas is presently under sustained attack," it says, adding that "the federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution."

The gathering of more than 100 conservative leaders at the Collingwood Library and Museum in Alexandria was a look backward as much as forward. A costumed George Washington amused the crowd as speakers cited Revolutionary War battles and the Declaration of Independence. Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater were extolled. President Obama was not mentioned; neither was any policy proposal or candidate.

But bubbling under the surface was a satisfaction that the nation's roiling political climate has left Democrats and perhaps moderate Republicans vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections. "We are about winning elections,'' said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group. "Conservatives are emboldened, and the movement will coalesce around candidates who reflect the principles of this document.''

The conservatives also held a four-hour private session that included a presentation by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. She said that Obama's approval ratings have declined among all demographic groups outside of African Americans and that conservative candidates should "offer solutions, even when blocking the bad stuff," according to a copy of her presentation.

Even as the movement's many strands have been unifying in opposition to Obama's policies, tensions linger between the conservative establishment in Washington and younger activists. Some questioned whether a meeting of Beltway elder statesmen would accomplish much after a year of "tea party" protests, fiery town hall meetings and the Republican triumphs in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey.

"It's nice to make a statement, but without a strategy to implement these ideas, what does it really accomplish?" asked Ned Ryun, president of American Majority, a grass-roots group that has trained nearly 5,000 tea party activists and conservative candidates. Two leaders of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest national tea party group, attended Wednesday's meeting and signed the document.

After the document was posted online for others to sign, the liberal group People for the American Way issued a statement blasting it as "yet another recitation of the same tired dogma we've seen for decades.''

"Maybe some day [conservatives] will move beyond the same old anti-government, anti-choice, anti-gay dogma," said the group's president, Michael B. Keegan. "But not today."

Organizers said they hope the document's principles of limited government and free enterprise will give candidates a framework. "The climate in this country for conservatives is extremely positive," said Reagan-era attorney general Edwin Meese III, who led Wednesday's gathering.

He warned that Republican candidates "who don't adhere to the constitutional principles in this document will have a very difficult time."

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