Conservatism (coming apart)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin sees the same trend I’m sensing: The Reagan coalition seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Looking ahead to 2016, Rubin argues that, “[T]he candidate who comes forward as a cookie-cutter ‘three-legged-stool’ (strong defense, economic conservative, social traditionalist) conservative is going to wind up pleasing no one and running into the same limitations that Mitt Romney did.”

For decades, opposition to the Soviet Union was the glue that held the disparate elements of the movement together. For a brief time, it was believed that the Global War on Terrorism might take its place. That hasn’t happened. And it seems the much-needed soul-searching that occurred after Romney’s loss has resulted in a sort of tacit agreement that an amicable divorce might be preferable to the status quo.

There are too many examples of this re-ordering to include in this modest blog post. Obviously, it’s unclear what the “conservative” position will be on foreign policy. Is it Rand Paul’s more modest approach, or Marco Rubio’s more robust foreign policy?

Social issues are another conundrum. According to the three-legged-stool, social conservatives constitute a third of the conservative coalition. (Indeed, social conservatives were the last group to join the coalition, and proved to be the final ingredient for electoral success.) Yet more and more, their foundational beliefs are seen as obstacles to the GOP’s survival (the GOProud vs. CPAC skirmish is merely a surrogate battle in a larger argument.)

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer penned an interesting post on author and AEI fellow Charles Murray’s comments at CPAC this weekend. It seems to underscore just how dramatically attitudes have shifted away from social conservatives:

“… Murray quoted his friend Karl Hess, a Goldwater speechwriter turned ‘charming anarchist,’ on the idea that abortions should be thought of as homicides—with the caveat that, ‘It’s a murder—it’s a homicide—but sometimes homicide is justified.’ Murray said that he’d long thought that Hess was too harsh, but now thought that his language was right.”

That’s a tough pill for anyone who fervently believes in the sanctity of life to swallow.

In fairness, Murray is a libertarian, but he has personally shifted his views on marriage and abortion in recent years. And his comments seem to represent a growing trend in a more libertarian-flavored brand of conservatism. But it’s not just ideologically-driven libertarians who feel this way. Establishment Republicans have reason to believe there are strategic reasons to abandon — or at least, downplay — these hot-button cultural issues.

More from Mayer:

“Unless the G.O.P. drops what he called its ‘litmus tests’ for candidates on these divisive social issues, Murray warned that conservatives were likely to alienate a large swath of the voting public, including his children, who might otherwise be attracted to the Party.”

It’s going to be a very interesting couple of years. The 2016 primary won’t just be about selecting a standard bearer, it’ll be about picking which standard to bear.

It’s possible we could see radical change that might even lead to the rise of a third party. That could happen if the GOP nominates a candidate deemed unacceptable by any one wing of the movement. On the other hand, if the GOP selects a more traditional conservative, such as, say, Rubio, the re-ordering might be more subtle. Some elements of the conservative movement might have to accept a demotion, of course, but it’s possible they would reluctantly accede to the demands of modernity.

But the question remains: Which banner will Republicans wave?

Matt K. Lewis