Sen. Lindsey Graham made clear his opinion of the Tea Partiers in a recent edition of The New York Times Magazine, saying their movement was “unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country.” Graham actually makes a very good point.

One of the defining features of American conservatism is not simply a dislike for big government but a wholesale rejection of the modern state, with many on the Right considering the current federal bureaucracy to be grossly unconstitutional and unrepresentative of the Founders’ intentions. Unwittingly, Graham made this point himself when confronted by angry Tea Partiers at a town hall meeting in the Upstate last year, telling The Greenville News, “They’re a political fringe group … They believe that Medicare is unconstitutional, and student loans are unconstitutional. I’m the conservative in the room.”

Try squaring Graham’s beliefs with that of the man who many have considered the conservative movement’s standard bearer, Barry Goldwater. A half century before the Tea Partiers started making noise, Goldwater made clear that a primary task for conservatives is to stress what government should not do, writing, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

Goldwater added, “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel the old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.”

To question whether programs like Medicare or student loans are unconstitutional may be “fringe,” but it’s also conservative — that is if a figure like Goldwater still means anything to the GOP. What is Graham’s claim? The New York Time‘s story notes: “On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups … in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: ‘What do you want to do? You take back your country — and do what with it?’ ”

Graham’s challenge illustrates his uselessness. What, exactly, is Graham uncomfortable with our government doing? What current federal intrusiveness is Graham looking to seriously challenge or roll back? While it may be true that the relatively new Tea Party movement often exhibits philosophical immaturity, it also represents a growing and popular disenchantment with the status quo.

The New York Time‘s article is primarily a flattering portrayal of a senator who prides himself on protecting establishment interests, making sure the center always holds, and that politics as usual remains usual. Graham believes the current Tea Party anger is unsustainable. He may be right, but he simultaneously fails to realize that such anger is born of an increasing belief among Americans that our current national trajectory is unsustainable and that we might be descending into bankruptcy — economically, politically, and, perhaps, morally.

The Times piece begins thusly: “The Obama administration courts him … The Tea Partiers shun him … Lindsey Graham is right where he wants to be.” And no doubt he is. The story then declares Graham is “this year’s maverick,” which is absurd. A real maverick might be someone who dares to challenge conventional wisdom, perhaps even tackling sacred cows like Medicare or student loans. Goldwater was a maverick whose radicalism resulted in a landslide defeat. Graham is an establishment man dedicated to making sure no actual mavericks — or conservatives — get anywhere near the reins of power.

I have long called myself a conservative, something that has always meant much more than the partisanship most mainstream conservative pundits obsess over, and certainly something more substantive than the Republican Party’s typical offerings. I essentially agree with Goldwater — that if it’s not in the Constitution, our government has no business doing it. For the first time I can remember, it seems that more conservatives than ever are closer to this very elementary, yet admittedly radical position of supporting true constitutional government. For conservatives, a “coherent vision for governing the country” should start with an admission that there should be much less government.

Any conservative today who does not want to rethink or re-examine our current state of affairs is not serious. Graham wants to rethink and re-examine nothing, but he takes great pride in serving elite interests, facilitating deals for the current administration as much as he did the last one. How this makes him a maverick remains clear only to The New York Times. How it makes him conservative remains clear only to him.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.