First Principles

In search of the Unified Theory of Conservatism

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“Is there a good ‘conservative’ ‘Republican’ in the race?”

January 3rd, 2012 · 2 Comments

A reader recently E-mailed me with this question, and I thought the night before the Iowa caucus would be a time to reflect on it here.

Is there a good “conservative” “Republican” in the race? As much as I’d like to think the guy currently in office is vulnerable, the Republicans seem to be trying harder to make some kind of a point this year than actually run a candidate that can beat him. The collection of candidates the GOP is running out there is almost humorously bad, in my opinion. Your thoughts?

The short answer is, “Not really, but several are ‘good enough’.”  But as disappointing as that may be, there are silver linings to be found in that fact.

First, it’s worth taking a moment to define the terms.  “Conservatism” is a political philosophy, which many people define in different ways, but which I define here.  “Republican” is the name of the team you need to cobble together and then lead to actually implement certain policies – the purpose of a party is to win elections, without which policy battles can’t even be fought.  One can be a “good conservative” philosophically speaking, but be totally unable to actually lead or work within the party.  One can equally be a “good Republican” and lead a majority of other Republicans to bigger government, more debt, and an increased regulatory state – indeed, that’s been too much the norm, and it’s why there’s a tea party movement.

The key of course is to find someone who can do both, and the “not really” answer means that I’m not convinced that anyone in the field has anything very close to the ideal combination of “conservatism” and “Republicanism.”

My reader talks about “making a point” as if it’s an either/or proposition to “beating Obama”.  I reject that formulation – both are important.  The ability to beat Obama is an absolute, non-negotiable prerequisite to earning my vote, but that is ONLY a prerequisite.  Unless our policies change radically, we’re hosed – Mark Steyn has a depressing but important piece today on just how hosed we really may be.

(A note for the record:  I’m helping coordinate the caucus in Nevada for the Washoe County GOP, but I’m not attached to or aligned with any of the campaigns, formally or informally.  I am the quintessential undecided voter.  I’ve changed my mind on my preferred candidate dozens of times, and can still be convinced by several of these candidates.  As always, the comments section is open.)

So – how do the candidates stack up for me today?

Michelle Bachmann

Bachmann is interesting – she has an LLM in Tax law, which for the uninitiated means she got her law degree and then studied nothing but our tax code for an extra year, and then she went to work for the IRS where should would have learned much, much more about ways to improve the system.  (The fact that this is necessary says a lot about how absurdly complicated our tax code has become.)  This should have made her a sort of Super Wonk on a subject that’s both critically important and very difficult for most people to understand or explain.  On paper, she could have been another Paul Ryan.  And in a few of the early debates, she exceeded my expectations.

But instead she laid aside her most valuable asset and just seemed to throw a lot of bombs and repeat a bunch of bumper stickers.  She never struck me as a serious thinker, and her failure to garner any kind of support amongst her fellow Republicans for any kind of leadership position indicates they didn’t see her as particularly serious, either.  Conservatism is great, but your personal philosophy as a government official is meaningless to me without the ability to turn it into actual policy.  She never demonstrated that ability.

And for me, she closed the door on any serious consideration from me when she repeated the monstrous lie that vaccines cause mental retardation.

Newt Gingrich

I want to like Newt, I really do.  I love his fight.  I love his record of accomplishment at the federal level.  He’s smart, but also undisciplined.  Interestingly, he’s in a lot of ways simultaneously the best and the worst “conservative” “Republican” out there.

He has said some insanely non-conservative things, and supported some insanely non-conservative policies.  I’ve written about this before, and stand by it.  But he also led the charge on welfare reform, and make no mistake – without Newt Gingrich, the Republicans never would have taken control of the House, and the balanced budgets of the 1990s would never, ever have happened.  That’s impossible to ignore, and it’s why in spite of Newt’s baggage and his weird philosophical forays and his spectacular falling out with and ouster from the House GOP caucus he once led to so many victories, I’m willing to keep him in mind.

Jon Huntsman

Huntsman has a reasonably conservative record as governor of Utah, but he’s running against conservatism AND the Republican base in a campaign where people are wondering if there’s a “good ‘conservative’ ‘Republican’ in the race”.  His strategy will inevitably fail for reason’s I’ve previously written about – I’ll honestly be surprised if he’s still in the race by February 4th.

Ron Paul

I recently wrote about my primary issues with Paul here.  But there’s another factor that’s equally as important.  He can’t lead.  He can’t convince.  Many of the supporters he attracts actively repel other folks who might be interested in his message.  Even if I agreed with him on every issue, he’s shown zero ability to actually accomplish anything.

Ron Paul has been in Congress literally longer than I’ve been alive.  He’s sponsored 620 bills, and of those, exactly one – one – has become law (it was a non-controversial measure to get a piece of federal property sold in Galveston).  Today I was arguing with a Paul supporter who claimed that was a good thing – we don’t need more laws, after all!  That’s true as far as it goes, but the Constitutional process requires that you pass a law to get rid of a law.  In other words, you still need a bill that can be voted on to limit or eliminate some government program.  And in order to do THAT, you need to actually convince people your idea has merit.

Such convincing takes time, effort, and frankly some people skills.  Either Ron Paul doesn’t possess or doesn’t wish to use the powers of persuasion necessary to turn his ideas into policy.  Even if I agreed with him on everything, that makes him worthless to me as “my guy on the inside,” even in the Oval Office.

His supporters have the same problem.  I think they max out at around 10, maybe 15% of just the GOP, but let’s be generous and call it 25%, reflecting the Iowa caucus polls.  This isn’t true of some, but a sizable chunk of them will immediately refer to you as a “neocon shill” or some other kookiness if you show the slightest suggestion that maybe Paul isn’t some sort of divine savior from the evil forces of Colonel Sanders and the CFR.  Here in Nevada in 2008, their attempt to “take over” the state convention even after is was abundantly clear that McCain had the nomination sewed up demonstrated a total disregard for either their fellow Republicans OR Conservatism.  I wrote at the time:

But their little convention juntas are anything but conservative. A conservative society must respect the individual liberties of each citizen equally, and that includes respecting their votes after they’ve been cast. The Ron Paul people have decided to forgo that respect for anyone else’s preferences, and force through a candidate that most Republicans are, as the primary vote totals and national polls indicate, profoundly uninterested in.

Their justification for this is that those of us who do not support their candidate are either stupid, misinformed, manipulated, or are enemies of the Lost Constitution that only Ron Paul has any hope of restoring. In other words, they know better than I do what’s good for me. I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds a lot more like Hillary Clinton than Ronald Reagan. Indeed, the entire idea of drastic “revolutions” inspired by “manifestos” ought to be very troubling to anyone interested in maintaining the stable and prosperous society we still live in.

So no – Ron Paul is not my guy.  He’s not good at being a Republican (which I understand his supporters see as a badge of honor), but even philosophically his movement is far more “conservative” in word than in deed.

Rick Perry

I had such huge expectations of Rick Perry.  When you look at actual records of accomplishment, particularly economically, he blows everyone else on the stage away.  And then he stunk up pretty much every single debate and blew a hole in his foot a mile wide.  What a shame.

I’m still willing to look at Rick Perry – Moses wasn’t a talented orator either, and we sure could use a little leading to the Promised Land about now.  But unless there’s some miracle between now and next month, I just don’t see how a vote for him isn’t totally wasted.  Of course, given the volatility of these polls, that may not be completely out of the question…

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney is just not a conservative, at least not philosophically.  He’s a fix-it guy with a much better record of “fixing” things in the private sector than from a government leadership position.  But he is a very good (if not great) Republican in terms of looking to build a broad coalition and use the party apparatus to win both elections and policy fights.

Jim Rose had a great piece today that summed up why Romney’s lack of a solid philosophical foundation doesn’t bother me as much as it might otherwise.

The main criticism of Romney is actually the reason I’m not worried about him as President. He’s a political opportunists, so if the conservatives want to win some political battles, give the opportunists plenty of opportunities. In other words, if the GOP can take the Senate and set the agenda, Romney will follow.

(Read the whole thing, BTW – it’s a really great analysis.)  Jim also thinks Romney will nominate an “ultra-conservative running mate” if he’s the nominee.  And a few days ago what picture was up on Drudge?

Oh, yeah. If I knew for certain this was going to be the ticket if Romney won, I'd probably settle firmly into his camp right now.

Romney doesn’t inspire love or passion.  There’s not the sense he means what he says or says what he means, and that’s the reason Romney doesn’t already have this thing locked up.  But Christie?  I don’t agree with him on everything, but I LOVE that guy.  He would bring some serious heft (yeah, yeah, but it’s true regardless of his weight) to that ticket – politically, policy-wise, and communication-wise.  Endorsements don’t usually matter to me, but this one does, especially given the very real possibility in my mind that Romney would ask Christie to join the ticket.

Rick Santorum

In the search for the latest “not-Romney,” some people like the guys over at The Other McCain are climbing on the Santorum bus.  I just don’t understand this.

Rick Santorum is probably the least conservative candidate in this race.  Religion alone doesn’t make you conservative – Big Government in the Name of Jesus is no less odious to me than any other kind.  Indeed, he expressly rejects the idea of individual liberty being the lodestar of legitimate government action, and virtually every one of his solutions to the problems facing us today involve mandates from Washington.  His record as a Senator reflects the same big government mentality.  Santorum has no respect for individualism or federalism, and he’s exactly he kind of nanny-statist that made me think I was a Democrat back when I was in high school and the “Religious Right” was ascendant.  And while I have no reason to believe he’s anything other than a good man, something about him rubs me very hard the wrong way.  This may be grossly unfair, but I know I’m not alone and it definitely matters in terms of electability.

And while he was elected twice to the Senate from a key swing state, after two years in office those same voters fired him with extreme prejudice in 2006 – an 18 point loss, which can’t be explained away solely by the fact that it was an awful year for Republicans all around.  If he can’t convince the people who know him best, it’s hard to imagine that he could do it nationally (not to mention get those PA electoral votes that are up for grabs).

Santorum might do well tomorrow.  But then, so did Mike Huckabee.  I would be just as disappointed as I was four years ago over such an outcome, but then I’d remember how things worked out for Huckabee and would imagine Iowa on a pair of water skis finally jumping over that shark.


So I don’t agree with my reader that the entire field is “almost humorously bad” (although a few of them are to me).  Several of them have major records of accomplishment, and as long as the GOP electoral strategy remains broad based, we can maximize the pros and minimize the cons contained within this field of candidates.

I hear a lot that we “need a Reagan right now.”  Well, we don’t have one, and even if we did, people would be complaining about how he’s too old and nothing but a doddering B movie actor who isn’t serious and can’t win against a vulnerable incumbent.  You go vote with the candidates you have, not with the fantasy one you wish you had.  If you don’t like it, next time get involved and help support and groom a better guy or gal.

There may not be an ideal “good ‘conservative’ ‘Republican'” in this race right now, but we have several who are “good enough.”  President Obama is actively destructive, and his removal from office is an absolute necessity if we’re to have any hope of serious economic recovery before my son (who is due to be born in April) graduates from high school.

While it would be nice to have some Great Hope come descend from above and fix all our problems, it’s valuable to be reminded that no one we elect to the Presidency is going to just wave a wand. We traditionally tend to ignore the shortcomings of the guy on “our team,” and so maybe a support-with-healthy-reservations-and-a-watchful-eye is probably a very good way to vote for any politician come November.

There is so much passion in the conservative movement right now, and it’s not going away.  People aren’t going to sit at home this time.  So if they’re unhappy with the Presidential nominee, perhaps instead they’ll pay more mind (and time and energy and money) to the Congressional, State, and other down-ticket races that can matter SO much more than the occupant of the Oval Office.  All of this is healthy.

Indeed – those down ticket races cannot be stressed enough.  To quote again from that great Jim Rose piece again, “I really think the Tea Party needs to concentrate more this year on sending Jim DeMint reinforcements so that no matter who has the White House, we still have an army. ”

One thing is for certain – no matter what happens, it will be fascinating to see how the results in Iowa shape our own caucus a month from now.

Tags: Big Government · Campaign '12 · Jon Huntsman · Michelle Bachmann · Mike Huckabee · Mitt Romney · Nevada Politics · Newt Gingrich · Principles · Republicans · Rick Perry · Rick Santorum · Ron Paul