President Obama has invited his political foe, Mitt Romney, to lunch at the White House. Its a nice gesture on the part of the President. One of the grand things about American politics is that, compared to the rest of the world and the history of human civilization, the American political system functions exceptionally well. In Roman times, an invitation to dinner by your former political opponent was basically a call to suicide. Poor Cicero was never really able to make nice with Mark Anthony, and it cost him his life.
Even in most parts of the world now, political factions often resort to rocket attacks, bomb jackets, and gasoline grenades as a means of dealing with their opponents. After the last election, my taxes might go up, my doctor visits might take longer, and the price of ammunition might rise, but nobody shows up to escort me and my family to the city gates.
Our success as a nation is largely a function of our belief in constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is the idea that government power is limited by law; law which government itself cannot alter. In our case, American constitutionalism is a product of both written law (our Constitution itself) and our belief in a higher law. Political thinkers of the Founding Era called this natural law, or the law of God. You can find these references in our Declaration of Independence, which really serves as sort of a vision statement for our nation.
Our Constitution works only because we believe in constitutionalism. Many nations have constitutions, but routinely ignore them when they get in the way. These nations are often racked with turmoil because, absent a guiding principle like constitutionalism, power and might become the basis for government. As a result, factions will do anything they can to get power and keep it. This creates inherently unstable political systems. On the contrary, nations with a commitment to limited government, like the United States, traditionally have long periods of political stability. Higher principles matter, and make a difference.
President Obama’s gesture is larger than just lunch with a political adversary. It’s an outward and visible sign of all that is right with our country. Both men know that the power of the president is limited in both scope and time. Both men know the White House belongs to neither of them. And both men know that they are but a small, human part of a much larger and important story – whether men can govern themselves from reflection and choice. Lunch is a nice time for both.