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Republicans need more than “Mr. Conservative” to unite party

Evan Ward

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What does it mean to be conservative?

Over spring break, Alabama was consumed by election fervor centered on Republican primary elections. For several weeks, hopeful candidates for all levels of government traveled the state, touting their conservative credentials: values, family, faith and low taxes. Any good Republican in 2012 knows that to win a primary election, one must establish himself as the more “conservative” candidate. During the months-long campaign cycle, this quest often takes the form of shallow political pandering, and our notions of conservatism are distorted.

The issue is crystalized in this year’s Republican presidential primaries. Still vying for the party’s nomination are four individuals who represent varying and often incompatible, strains of political thought. Yet, all lay claim to being the second coming of Ronald Reagan. As it turns out, even Ronald Reagan favored certain tax increases (capital gains, gasoline, elimination of certain deductibles) that this crop of candidates can’t seem to stomach. If Ronald Reagan isn’t Mr. Conservative, then who is?

Of those laying claim, some have emphasized social issues, establishing firm stances on birth control, pornography and LGBT issues.Others base their candidacies around the economy, insisting that their initiatives will spur job creation. At least one candidate presents a decidedly libertarian stance, arguing that the most fundamental issues facing the country are those of monetary policy, curing the debt, ending the Federal Reserve and scaling back foreign intervention.

This range of choices is a reflection of the varied viewpoints of American conservatives at large. There are fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, evangelicals and libertarians, neoconservatives and classical liberals, neo-con saber-rattlers and libertarian pacifists. In one sense, it is good for the GOP that such a broad spectrum of people consider themselves conservative, but we are seeing the flip side displayed in this year’s primary. As the various conservative factions squabble over whom to nominate, the contest over which candidate to dub Mr. Conservative stretches into the summer, with the possibility of a brokered convention looming and the conservative position in the general election weakened.

How did so many factions end up under one big tent? Conservatives in post-World War II America never had to perform serious ideological reconciliation amongst themselves because there have always been outside circumstances serving as a kind of glue that holds them together. Soviet communism drove many people toward conservative politics in the 1950s and kept them there until the early ‘80s. After the Cold War and Reagan, various conservative factions have separated and formed distinct political movements. The religious right has been preeminent for several decades, while the Tea Party has been a popular form of conservative expression in recent years.

This year’s Republican candidates are trying and failing to seize upon this “anti-” mentality. They can no longer simply woo conservatives by being anti-communist, so they concentrate on being anti-Obama, or anti-taxes or anti-secularism. They try to conjure up specters so that they can keep the anti-bad-thing strategy alive, but we are now seeing its limitations. The anti-Obama glue isn’t as strong as the anti-Soviet glue, (or the anti-terrorism glue, which is also fading into the past), and it can’t keep together the various factions under the conservative tent.

To progress, conservatives can no longer be content to define themselves by what they aren’t. Simply explaining that, “I am the anti-Obama,” hasn’t inspired conservatives to unite around any Republican candidate and will not rally conservatives in the long run. And anyway, how intellectually bankrupt is a party when major planks in its leading candidate’s platform are simply, “I’m the guy who is least like the other guy,” and “I’m the only guy who can beat the other guy.”

Whether it comes from within a political party or from the outside, conservatives are going to have to make a serious effort to define what they are. Areas of common ground amongst various conservative factions must be emphasized, and from it, principles must be deduced that will serve to unite social libertarians with traditionalists.

“First Principles” are often discussed, but if conservatives want to compete, it’s time to get serious about them. Moreover, they need them to be reflected in their representative party, the GOP. The Republican Party can no longer try to embody divergent elements of conservative thought. Being supportive of foreign intervention but vehemently against taxes can only work for so long. The divergent branches of conservative thought need a rational, underlying framework of basic ideas that unites them. It has had this in the past and needs it now.

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Republicans need more than “Mr. Conservative” to unite party