Who owns ‘conservatism’?

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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“We need more conservative Texans in Washington, D.C., including my friend David Dewhurst,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said during his state’s Republican convention last week. Perry’s comments were met with loud boos from the mostly conservative audience.

Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor of Texas, is running for U.S. Senate. He is being challenged in a run-off by former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who many Texans see as the more conservative candidate.

But Perry does have a point. Just a few short years ago, say in 2005 or 2006, a fairly moderate Republican like Dewhurst could’ve successfully passed himself off as a conservative with most Republican voters. During that time, conservatism was not measured by one’s limited-government record or fidelity to the Constitution, but simply by whether someone was on board with George W. Bush’s policies. Some Republicans still consider Bush a conservative, even though Bush was the most big-government president in our history until President Obama.

I belong to that segment of diehard constitutionalists, libertarians and others who’ve been anxious to get rid of these phony big-government conservatives and replace them with bona fide limited-government advocates like Cruz. For some of my more radically libertarian friends, even Cruz isn’t good enough. I strongly disagree, but certainly prefer that sentiment to Republicans trying to convince me that John Boehner is a conservative.

The left’s contention that the Republican Party has been “hijacked” by a bunch of limited-government “extremists” is partly — and thankfully — true. A Daily Caller story in June titled “Obama to portray Romney as a libertarian extremist” quoted the president saying: “We [Democrats] haven’t moved that much. … What’s changed is the Republican Party.” Obama is right. The Democratic Party’s agenda since the New Deal has been to make America as socialist as possible. During the Bush administration, the Republican Party doubled the size of the Department of Education through No Child Left Behind, created the largest new entitlement program since President Lyndon Johnson with Medicare Plan D and increased the debt by trillions of dollars. For most of the last decade, the Republican Party was as socialist as the Democratic Party.

This is why when John McCain lost to Obama in 2008, I cheered. Not because I wanted Obama to become president, but because I wanted the Republican Party to get its ass kicked. The GOP desperately needed to hit the reset button. A President McCain would have made that virtually impossible, but now it’s finally happening.

I’ve learned something from living in Washington, D.C. for the past year: most of the people who work in and around politics in this city are not that ideological. Of course, there are serious conservatives, libertarians and limited-government champions, just as there are serious progressives and liberals. But by and large, most who seek to work within either major party are primarily interested in becoming staunch partisans. If Obama defines the Democratic Party, that’s what liberalism is. If Bush defines the GOP, that’s what conservatism is. The thinking of most Beltway types really doesn’t go much beyond this sophomoric level.

President Obama’s contention that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is a “libertarian extremist” is just plain dumb. But Democrats are recognizing a real shift happening within the GOP, as Republicans are seriously re-examining what it means to be a conservative.

On government spending, there is more demand amongst Republicans for substantive cuts than at any time in recent memory. On war and civil liberties, the neoconservatives are slowly but surely losing their once-exclusive rights to defining what a conservative foreign policy looks like. Why? Because perpetual war costs a lot of money we simply don’t have; because true constitutionalists can’t simply ignore the Fourth Amendment; because a policy of undeclared wars with no end goal, no exit strategy or no strategy at all is glaringly stupid. Cruz wants Pentagon cuts, to get out of Afghanistan and to abolish the TSA. Perry’s “friend” Dewhurst does not.

Senator Marco Rubio, who The New York Times’ Ross Douthat calls “the great neoconservative hope,” has noticed this ideological shift in the Republican Party. As Rubio explained in a speech at the Brookings Institution in April: “When I arrived in the Senate, I found that the sides and debate had shifted, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan and staying out of Libya. … Today in the Senate on foreign policy, the further you move to the right, the likelier you are to wind up on the left.”

Bush’s domestic policies were certainly on the left, yet were called “conservative” by many in the Republican Party at the time. Today, few conservatives would call Bush’s domestic policies conservative. This reassessment of what a conservative domestic policy should be — including examining what is truly right or left — also translates to foreign policy, where Rubio and a handful of neocon diehards are determined to keep Republican foreign policy the same as it was under Bush.

The establishment types who actually run the party don’t really care. Their idea of “conservatism” is simply whatever the last Republican brand was. They’re always playing catch-up. If being like Bush means they can win the next election, they’re all for it. If being like Ted Cruz and the tea party, or being more libertarian, means Republicans win, they’re all for that too.

The worst thing about the Republican establishment is that they stand for nothing. The best thing about the Republican establishment is that they stand for nothing.

The ideological factions battling within the GOP right now are the neoconservative old guard and a new, rising generation of constitutional conservatives exemplified by Cruz. This battle will undoubtedly continue. But for the first time in a long time, it looks like old-fashioned, limited-government conservatism could actually win.

Jack Hunter (also known by his radio moniker the “Southern Avenger”) is a frequent guest on Fox Business, Michael Savage’s nationally syndicated radio program “The Savage Nation” and a frequent guest host on The Mike Church Show on Sirius XM. Hunter is the co-author of “The Tea Party Goes to Washington” by Sen. Rand Paul, assisted Sen. Jim DeMint with his book “Now or Never: How to Save America from Economic Collapse” and writes the Paulitical Ticker blog for the Ron Paul 2012 Campaign.