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Shifting Goalposts: The Changing Definition of “Conservative”

The definition of “conservative,” “moderate,” and “liberal” are constantly shifting; they’re relative terms, and positions that were radical for one generation can be mainstream the next and vice versa. But the goalposts of American conservatism have shifted wildly almost overnight.

During the 2008 presidential cycle, Mitt Romney was touted by the movement leaders as the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Now, there’s a mad scramble to find someone — anyone — to run against him who’s more conservative. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who left office with sky-high approval ratings after two terms as governor of arguably the most conservative state in the union, is considered a raging liberal and struggling to rise above two percent in the polls.

Meanwhile, longtime conservative stalwarts are suddenly finding themselves outside the movement.

Mitt Romney

On his Wednesday show, which aired the day after the Republican economic debate, radio talk icon Rush Limbaugh declared, “What’s upsetting to me is the fait accompli  that’s attaching itself to Romney.” He proclaimed, “70% of Republicans are not supportive of Romney right now. I think the Republican base, the conservative base that’s the majority in this country is so far ahead of the leaders of the Republican establishment and the inside-the-Beltway media people.”

And Limbaugh said that “Romney is not a conservative. He’s not, folks. You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn’t.”

Limbaugh expressed his frustration that the real conservatives in the race — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann in particular — weren’t performing as well in the spotlight. But he blamed a lot of that on a liberal media that just doesn’t understand the conservative message.

While conceding that Romney does a good job in debates, which he chalked up to more experience in that format than the other contenders, Limbaugh noted that, if Romney’s “the nominee, Romneycare is not going to get a pass. It is going to be the bludgeon, it’s gonna be the bludgeon that the Democrats use.”

Now, that may well be the case. But it’s worth noting that Romney signed his controversial health-care reform bill into law in April 2006.

Nearly two years later, Limbaugh endorsed Romney for the 2008 Republican nomination declaring that “there probably is a candidate on our side who does embody all three legs of the conservative stool, and that’s Romney. The three stools or the three legs of the stool are national security/foreign policy, the social conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives.”

Let’s stipulate that Limbaugh was making that assessment based on the three plausible candidates available on February 5, 2008: Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee. He’d earlier seemed to be leaning toward Fred Thompson, whose campaign never really got off the ground. Still, the fact of the matter is that Limbaugh was perfectly comfortable considering Romney a full-fledged conservative three and a half years ago — well after the passage of “Romneycare.”

David Frum

Yesterday, Frum went on NPR to discuss with host Kai Ryssdal why he felt compelled to resign his long-held post as the conservative counterpoint to Robert Reich on “Marketplace.” He explained that, “although I consider myself a conservative and a Republican, and I think that the right-hand side of the spectrum has the better answers for the long-term growth of economy — low taxes, restrained government, less regulation — it’s pretty clear that facing the immediate crisis, very intense crisis, I’m just not representing the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days.”

By way of example, he pointed to the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over handling the financial crisis and the ensuing global recession. “This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here’s where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn’t necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree. But it’s not the medicine that’s being prescribed now. The fact is I’m kind of an outlier. And it’s a service to the radio audience if they want to hear people explaining effectively why one of the two great parties takes the view that it does — it needs to have somebody who agrees with that great party. I’m hoping that the party will eventually agree with me, but I can’t blink the fact that I don’t agree with them on this set of issues.”

Now, there’s not much doubt that Frum is widely considered a moderate by today’s lights. But it wasn’t always so.

He made his name as a conservative opinion writer at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the The American Spectator. His first book, Dead Right (1994), was described by William F. Buckley as “the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation.” A speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he penned the infamous phrase “axis of evil.” And he was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute from 2003 until he was fired last March.

But now he’s so far outside the American conservative mainstream that he’s routinely vilified as a Republican in Name Only and a traitor to the movement.

What Happened?

Parties losing elections tend to take one of two paths. Either they collectively decide that their platform is out of touch with public sentiment and adjust accordingly, or they decide that their problem was a poor candidate and weak messaging and double down.

The first path was taken in the early 1990s, as Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council shifted a Democratic Party stuck in the debates of the 1960s back to the center, co-opting several Republican positions while alienating parts of the base. While parts of the liberal-progressive core are still angry and unrepresented, the party went on to win three of the next five presidential contests and got the plurality of the popular vote in four of the five. This, after having lost five of the previous six.

The Republican Party took the second course after its 2008 defeat. Despite respect for his enormous courage during seven long years as a prisoner of war, conservatives never considered John McCain one of their own. He was nominated almost by default when Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and others more popular with the base imploded before the race really got started. And conservatives had been sold the idea that a relatively moderate candidate who could count on favorable press coverage would do well with the coveted “swing voters.”

Rather than chalking the loss up to a combination of the economic crisis, weariness from two unpopular wars, and a particularly charismatic opponent, Republicans decided that the problem was that their leadership had been insufficiently true to the party’s ideology. In particular, they were justly outraged, albeit in hindsight, at the profligate spending under Bush and a Republican Congress.

This sentiment grew into a force of nature with the tea party movement. Ostensibly a backlash against government bailouts and out-of-control spending, it became something of a purge of Republicans who were deemed too moderate, with tea-party-backed candidates challenging Republican incumbents and establishment favorites — including McCain, who for a time looked likely to lose his Senate re-election race to former congressman J.D. Hayworth, before rallying for a comfortable win.

Longtime Delaware congressman Mike Castle was defeated by upstart Christine O’Donnell for the party’s Senate nomination. Longtime Utah senator Bob Bennett lost to Mike Lee, who won the general election.  Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski was beaten in the primaries by tea-party favorite Joe Miller. All three of the tea-party candidates lost, although Murkowski narrowly won re-election anyway, as an independent.

To be sure, conservatives had plenty of successes, most notably the populist Scott Brown taking the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by liberal lion Teddy Kennedy. And Marco Rubio, who successfully primaried sitting Republican governor Charlie Christ, went on to easily win the general election and looks to be a rising star in Republican politics.

The result of all this — in addition to retaking the House and coming close to taking back the Senate — is a Republican Party and conservative movement that is largely bereft of the moderates of the past. After years of political leaders spouting conservative mantras without doing much to turn them into policy, the congressional delegations now feature a critical mass of True Believers.

Democratic leaders have charged their Republican counterparts with bad faith and hypocrisy for filibustering and vilifying policy proposals that their own party had proposed in the recent past. In some cases, this is justified. In many, though, it’s simply a function of the center of gravity having suddenly shifted. Proposals that came from the pages of National Review or the halls of the Heritage Foundation in 2006 may not be “conservative” by 2011 standards.

As many have noted, while conservative politicians constantly reference Ronald Reagan’s legacy as the gold standard, it’s arguable whether the Gipper himself would pass tea-party muster. After all, he signed a huge amnesty bill for illegal aliens into law and his signature tax cut left the top marginal rate at 50 percent.  As we all know, anything above 35 percent is socialism.


By: James Joyner, Managing Editor, The Atlantic, October 15, 2011

October 15, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, GOP, Ideologues, Ideology, Middle Class, Public Opinion, Republicans, Voters | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why the Tea Party Failed To Produce A Credible Candidate

Writing on his eponymous website, David Frum reacted to Tuesday’s GOP debate and Mitt Romney’s front-runner status by asking, “Who produces the first big analysis: Why the Tea Party could not produce a credible presidential candidate?” I’ll bite. Every political movement is a marriage of beliefs and rhetoric, combining convictions about where the country should be going and judgments about the best way to get there. Potential supporters assess the whole package.

The tea party’s beliefs and convictions about where the country should be going, or the best version of them, are popular enough to produce a viable candidate, especially in a GOP primary. He or she would insist that the federal government spends too much, that bureaucrats shouldn’t pick winners and losers in the economy, and that federalizing the health care system is unlikely to reduce overall costs.

A viable tea party agenda would also appeal to the libertarian wing of the party, which is suspicious of interventionism, ever-expanding military spending, and the criminalization of everything from marijuana to not having health insurance. And it would pointedly highlight the damage done by Democratic Party donors, especially Wall-Street beneficiaries of government largess, public employee unions, and trial lawyers, all of whom use their clout to capture taxpayer money.

So how to produce a candidate? A savvy tea party would assess politicians with resumes sufficient to become president, court and flatter known quantities like Mitch Daniels, who would fundraise well be acceptable to other constituencies in the Republican Party, and work to ensure that the longshots it elevated were principled guys like Gary Johnson, who’ve proven their ability to govern should they improbably catch fire in the course of campaigning around the nation.

But the actual tea party isn’t savvy. It overestimates its clout within the GOP, fails to appreciate the many obstacles to winning a general election, let alone implementing its agenda, and is therefore careless and immature in choosing its champions. It elevates polarizing figures of questionable competence like Sarah Palin because doing so is cathartic. It backed Michele Bachmann despite her thin resume, erratic behavior in interviews, and the fact that she cares most about advancing a socially conservative agenda, not a small-government agenda. Its erstwhile favorite, Rick Perry, doesn’t even subscribe to what ought to be a core tea party tenet: that the government shouldn’t subsidize particular firms, picking winners and losers. Perry is a right-wing corporatist. And Herman Cain, the front-runner of the week? He has zero governing experience, acknowledges that he knows next to nothing about foreign policy, flip flops on matters of tremendous consequence, and touts a flawed economic plan, 9-9-9, that could never pass.

What do all these dubious champions have in common? Their red meat rhetoric and ability to antagonize liberals. What many tea partiers share is a belief that the best way to get where the country should be going is by being more ruthless than the Democrats; by fighting them zealously in the media, zinging them from the stump, and never, ever compromising with them in Congress or at the White House negotiating table. This is partly a reaction to George W. Bush’s tenure, when tea partiers believe they were sold out by a big-spending, big-government RINO who kept compromising with Ted Kennedy. It is partly a reaction to the perception that they tried nominating media darling and “maverick” John McCain in 2008, and he lost. It is partly a reaction to the belief, stoked by talk radio, that every compromise with liberals is just one more ratchet in the direction of socialism, and that a confident, uncompromising conservative, in what they imagine to be the model of Ronald Reagan, is the solution to their woes.

Their approach has several flaws.

1) Bombast isn’t a predictor of fealty to principle. It’s just strategically uttered rhetoric, like everything else said by politicians, a profession where what is promised on the campaign trail always deviates from what is done in office. How odd that the most cynical voters are most taken by extravagant promises of loyalty.

2) When primary candidates compete to be the most bombastic and uncompromising in their rhetoric, the most successful quickly start to look unelectable, and the average Republican primary voter wants most of all to beat President Obama in 2012. Thus the winner of the “conservative primary” loses the Republican primary, in much the same way that Howard Dean lost to John Kerry during the 2004 cycle.

3) Some candidates who lack bombast, like Jon Huntsman or Daniels, would be more effective than any tea-party champion at advancing the movement’s agenda, but they’re overlooked because they fail to excite. It’s absurd. Their records as successful governors are concrete demonstrations that they govern in a reliably conservative manner and can win converts. It is irrational to mistrust the rhetoric of politicians even while preferring someone like Cain, whose lack of experience forces supporters into the position of trusting his rhetoric without any basis for doing so save their gut feelings (which have done nothing but caused them to feel betrayed by pols in the past).

Why couldn’t the tea party produce a viable candidate? Its partisans put fiery rhetoric ahead of substance, judged GOP politicians based on the extravagance of their promises more than what they’d actually accomplished, failed to demand of its champions some baseline level of competence, and insisted on pols who deliberately piss off outsiders rather than Reaganesque communicators intent on converting them. Tea partiers got drunk off the pleasure of hearing their prejudices echoed. They’re now waking up to face their hangover. And his name is Mitt Romney.


By: Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, October 13, 2011

October 15, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, GOP, Ideology, Libertarians, Republicans, Right Wing, Voters, Wall Street | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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