“To listen to many grassroots conservatives, the GOP establishment is a cabal of weak-kneed sellouts who regularly light votive candles to a poster of liberal Republican icon Nelson Rockefeller.”
So writes the popular conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg in a thoughtful column titled “The Myth of an Impure GOP.” Goldberg argues that the very idea of a weak-kneed GOP establishment is itself “a destructive myth,” refuted by the the disappearance of the Rockefeller Republicans.
It’s true. Nelson Rockefeller’s political disciples are as dead as he is. The last of the genuinely liberal Republicans have mostly left the party, like Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee, or remain only nominally affiliated with the GOP, like Colin Powell.
Jon Huntsman was widely regarded as the most liberal Republican to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2012. Huntsman endorsed Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare reforms, was so strongly opposed to abortion that as governor of Utah he signed a bill that would ban the practice if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, and said he wouldn’t approve a deficit-reduction deal that contained $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases.
Since the 1990s, even some of the biggest Northeastern moderates — Rudy Giuliani, William Weld, Christine Todd Whitman, and Chris Christie — have run as conservatives on the big issues: crime, taxes, welfare, the cost of public sector unions. Their more liberal positions, no matter how sincerely held, were issues that were peripheral to their agenda.
The most recent of these examples, Christie, has taken some liberal policy positions. But he has mostly chosen to distance himself from the national GOP brand on symbolic issues.
Yet somehow the federal government keeps getting bigger even when Republicans are in power. No matter how many Republican Supreme Court justices are appointed, Roe still stands, as do many of the major liberal precedents dating back to the Warren Court. Guns and taxes are two domestic issues on which conservatives have made inroads. Those inroads now appear to be in danger.
In Goldberg’s telling, this is because conservatives have failed to persuade the country. That’s partly true. But consider that the last time Republicans simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress, they created a new, entirely deficit-funded entitlement, expanded the Department of Education, created a new cabinet-level agency, boosted farm subsidies, exploded earmarks, and increased discretionary spending faster than Bill Clinton had.
Exactly none of this has anything to do with the war on terror, incidentally.
Conservatives are often mocked for being overly sentimental about Ronald Reagan. But the conservative policy accomplishments that approach the significance and endurance of the New Deal or Great Society mainly date back to the Reagan years. In fact, aside from the Reagan economic program, winning the Cold War, and passing welfare reform in 1996, much of what Republicans have done at the national level is neither unimpeachably conservative nor indisputably successful.
Even Reagan added a new cabinet-level department rather than fulfilling his pledge to abolish two, ran large deficits rather than balancing the budget, and was at best a qualified success in controlling non-defense domestic spending.
At each point, things could have turned out differently. Perhaps Republicans could have succeeded at reforming Medicare in the 1990s, or George W. Bush could have prevailed on Social Security reform as president. The Bush-era Republicans might have left the Gingrich Congress’ efforts to curb farm subsidies intact.
But the bottom line is that on some of the biggest issues that inspired conservatives to get into politics in the first place, the GOP has accomplished remarkably little.
Few Republicans today talk like Nelson Rockefeller. But not many self-described conservative politicians talk like Barry Goldwater either, and even fewer back up limited-government rhetoric with meaningful actions.
When conservatives look for presidential candidates, they so often turn to radio talk show hosts, television pundits, and House backbenchers because movement conservative senators remain rare and incontrovertibly conservative governors are even rarer. Most of the time, these voters wind up settling because even staunch conservatives can’t be convinced that such candidates stand much of a chance of winning the White House.
Goldberg correctly laments the conservative movement’s “hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal,” but that includes much of the GOP. Rank-and-file conservatives often face a choice between candidates who sincerely share their convictions but are politically inept and unprincipled hacks who at least possess basic political aptitude.
The party often substitutes red-state identity politics for principled conservatism and mistakes chest-beating for ideological purity. So conservatives can be forgiven for assuming many Republicans want to profit from their concerns rather than resolve them.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.