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Maybe it’s time to define Conservatism. People throw around the term and it’s getting almost as used, abused, caricatured and feigned-persecuted as the term RINO–everyone’s favorite fallback when they choose political expedience over principle.
Republicans are NOT necessarily Conservatives, although many Republicans are conservative. So, envision the Venn Diagram above as having Republicans all around. Some Republicans are incoherent. That is, the slide between the circles for convenience sake or depending on what idea is currently trendy.
Politicians and their political staffers vacillate between the circles; usually based on political convenience. For example, almost all Republicans pay lip-service to fiscal conservatism but almost none of them believe it in practice. They all have their exceptions because they all have their pet ideas about what the government should do. Most of these ideas mean getting into your business.
Some politicians hold socially conservative beliefs but don’t like talking about them because it’s icky. More of them, especially in the Senate, are socially liberal.
Republicans killed their brand by nearly abandoning any form of fiscal conservatism. They believed in keeping taxes, but not spending, low. This caused the government to grow and the future debt obligations foisted on future generations to grow with it. The Democrats have since made the Republicans look like pikers in comparison, but the Republicans still have a ways to go to undo their image and action problem.
Now, there’s much ado right now about the Conservative Political Action Conference because an identity-politics group GOProud has been allowed to attend CPAC. Having read founder Chris Barron’s material and seen his activism, it seems that his group fits into two circles (or in the past, referred to as two legs of the Conservative tent)–the fiscal conservative and hawk circles. Here is the group’s belief statement:
What we believe
We are conservatives who believe in limited government, individual liberty, free markets, a strong national defense and a confident foreign policy. We believe that every individual should be equal under the law. Click here to learn about our federal legislative priorities.
I’m pretty sure the “equal under the law” thing is a euphemism for gay people being married like hetero people. Otherwise, this is a fiscally and defense-wise conservative group.
Meanwhile, there are Libertarians of the Ron Paul variety. Last year, they notoriously won the CPAC straw-poll (a function of a bunch of college Ron Paulians being shipped to the conference to stuff the voting). You can look at the Libertarian’s platform here. There is little about social issues, and in fact, many Libertarians are pro-Gay Marriage and pro-abortion. Or, they believe that these are personal choices and not to be part of the government at all. As to foreign policy, many libertarians are frankly anti-war, period. Some others believe in border protection with the rest of the world on its own. Others believe that America is only obligated to fight back when they’re attacked (and the 9/11 attack was not a real attack).
As far as I can tell, many, if not most, libertarians inhabit only one circle on the Conservative Venn Diagram. In fact, Libertarians are so adhered to being anti-foreign intervention and pro-abortion and gay marriage that they vote Democrat — see also Megan McArdle, et al.
Should these people be excluded from CPAC? They only constitute one leg of the Conservative tent while the GOProud constitutes two.
I’ll come back to that question. For a moment, let’s consider the Tea Party. When polled, Tea Partiers are very socially conservative. They emphasize fiscal conservatism because they feel the threat to the Republic and to personal liberty is the vast debt and the ever more powerful federal government–both of which strangle the freedom enumerated in the Constitution.
Does this swing both by the Tea Party, and by the nation generally, toward more fiscal restraint mean that the social issues are no longer important? Certainly not! It just means that many Americans believe that the pressing issue is the suffocating debt. Many also believe that many social ills can be solved by getting the government less, and not more, involved in citizens’ lives.
The Tea Party’s focus makes Republicans uncomfortable, because, more than any other policy, fiscal cuts are concrete. Lofty rhetoric can be thrown around about social issues, but so far, the only way at many social issues has been by cutting public funding (a fine strategy, by the way). Money can be measured. Republican action on such a tangible circle will be judged and judged harshly come this next election.
In an effort to conflate things and confuse the issue, many Republicans and even some Conservatives, throw the libertarians and the Tea Partiers into the same boat. This is a mistake. Tea Partiers are very concerned about fidelity to the Constitution and fiscal restraint and worry that much of the tradition that made America great is not being conserved. Libertarians would like to progress toward new social structures, tend to be more secular, and tend to have isolationist foreign policy views. These are big differences.
Another note. There is a strain of Big Government Conservatives in the Republican party. These folks have strong sympathy for social justice issues–they might want universal health care, for example, because they believe it’s the Christian Thing To Do. This impulse can also influence foreign policy–intervening on behalf of Christians being massacred in nations being overrun by Islamists (Sudan) or sending billions in foreign policy aid to Africa for AIDs medicine and Malaria prevention, as an example. These folks often favor Amnesty for illegal aliens. President Bush was this flavor of a Conservative. He was hawkish and socially conservative but he was not, in the least, a fiscal conservative. He saw the government as an objective force for good. To fully understand this strain, read Michael Gerson’s book Heroic Conservatism (I may be the only one who read that book, but it laid out this philosophy).
It is safe to say that the Tea Party reacted to this lopsided conservatism. At what point do Christians need to tend to their own house? America’s house needs some tending. And so, the fiscal brakes have been applied to get True Conservatism back in balance.
In addition, there are one-issue voters in every circle. That is, there are some Republicans who only vote Republican for fiscal reasons (they own a business and don’t care about the rest of it, for example). Some vote Republican because they’re one issue is abortion. They give to the SBAList and they vote Life. I have evangelical friends who chose Mike Huckabee on only this issue. The rest of his stands mattered little. And then there are a whole new group of Republicans who are somewhat derisively labeled “Neocons”. These are hawkish foreign policy folks, often but not always Jewish, who were turned by the 9/11 attack. These folks can be quite liberal on spending and social issues.
Being a Republican is indeed a Big Tent. And all the one-leg folks will be at CPAC, too. The SoCons, the NeoCons, the Libertarians–all guys who may consistently inhabit only one circle–will be there.
Back to GOProud and Libertarians.
What to do with them?
I remember being at a conference two years ago being exasperated at the naivité of the group of libertarians and an old GOPer said to me, “We need their votes, too.”
But CPAC is NOT the Republican party and it’s not the Libertarian Political Action Conference, it’s an ideological gathering where people work together to form action around Conservative Ideals. The Conservative Political Action Conference brings together all those who have disparate conservative principles; activists, who gather information, share information, and act on that information.
Some folks don’t get on the agenda. In fact, Pamela Geller missed being on the agenda in years past because the topic of Islamism in America and around the world was too un-PC. She rented a room and had overflowing crowds anyway.
Some folks get into the conference that some others don’t like. I could list some organizations that I’m not fond of who’ve been regular CPAC attenders. No matter, in the war of ideas, the truth always wins.
For those irritated by the Gay Marriage idea being allowed in the tent, isn’t it time to do something at the event to convince the attendees of the value of Traditional Marriage? If a session such as that isn’t allowed on the agenda, isn’t that a big enough idea to rent a conference room and speak on it? The fact is, the Value Voters Summit speaks to one leg of the tent. It is, in a sense, preaching to the choir.
The conservative movement swings. And different issues come to the fore depending on the circumstances. It is not being overly dramatic to believe that America faces a dire fiscal crisis and it is the defining issue for the next two years. That doesn’t mean all other issues are irrelevant. It just means that fiscal conservatism is at the fore.
Since Libertarians occupy the fiscal conservatism circle, they’re getting more attention and validation than they’ve had in years. Being that many of them are so annoying on other issues, it can be grating to have them be center stage when they aren’t conservative in any other meaningful way. Still, that doesn’t mean that some ideas that had been out in libertarian land aren’t now mainstream conservative ideas–auditing the Fed comes to mind, cutting whole government departments comes to mind. Ideas that were once unthinkable are now at least being considered. How do we put these fiscally conservative ideas into practice?
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this…
The answer to the question about whether Libertarians should be at CPAC..is well, yes, they should be there. And so should GOProud. They have every right to try and convince people of their ideas. The Conservative world is not the Borg. It is not some monolithic hive-mind like the Left enjoys. There are debates and the circles expand and constrict.
The fiscally conservative circle was nearly non-existent for years. I’m glad it’s back. I hope it can make a difference policy-wise and through concrete legislation.
And I hope social conservatives don’t abandon CPAC. I have strong reservations about identity politics in conservative thought. In fact, I’m pretty sure identity-politics are antithetical to conservatism as a philosophy. Still, we need to reach more minority voters and convince them of conservatism. How do we do that and not balkanize conservatism?
That’s a real discussion that must be had. And CPAC is just the place to have it.