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Can GOP reclaim small-government mantle?

In September 1960, several dozen young conservative intellectuals descended on the estate of National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn., to draft a manifesto. Terse but sweeping, it demanded victory over communism, rather than coexistence with it, and declared that when "government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation." Known as the Sharon statement, it helped forge the modern conservative movement.

Half a century later, many of the movement's elders — including former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner Jr. and American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery — are trying to replicate that success and co-opt the tea party movement. Last week they assembled near George Washington's former estate to issue a new epistle called the Mount Vernon statement.

The statement is the product of the Conservative Action Project, which is headed by Meese and emerged from the secretive conservative power-broker organization known as the Council for National Policy. The project's Web site explains that "just as FDR's soak-the-rich policies did not work in the 1930s to end the Great Depression, similar policies by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats will not work today in restoring to us a vibrant economy." It also features photos of Calvin Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, who was an early exponent of supply-side economics.

The Mount Vernon statement thus aims to relegate the free-spending George W. Bush era and Obama to the sidelines and to reinvent the conservative movement in its original small-government image.

At the same time, it tries to paper over the differences between social conservatives, libertarian conservatives and neoconservatives by reminding "economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national-security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America's safety and leadership role in the world."

If the Mount Vernon statement represents a lofty attempt to restate conservative principles, the practical blueprint for the right's attempt to assimilate the tea party's adherents is contained in an important article by Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O'Beirne in the Feb. 22 National Review. They liken taking the tea partiers on board to the debates that surrounded allying the GOP with the Christian right during the 1970s.

But the insurgent party may well drive the GOP so far to the right that it proves something of an albatross in November. It's also hard to see how the GOP could deliver on the tea party's demand for cutting federal entitlement programs. Indeed, Republicans might well prove as ineffectual as Democrats in attacking the deficit, which they compiled in the first place during the Bush presidency.

As conservative veterans urge the GOP to reclaim the small-government mantle, then, the question hovering over them is whether they will successfully harness the volatile insurgency led by the tea party or will themselves be swept aside as part of regime change. It would be no small irony if they were displaced by the very kind of insurrectionist spirit they embodied 50 years ago in Connecticut.