A conservative identity crisis — or just growing pains?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A decade ago, daring to criticize President George W. Bush’s agenda was a betrayal so heinous that an intellectually honest conservative might be labeled “unpatriotic” for doing so. Today, disagreeing with the tea party’s tactics might similarly result in one being branded a “French Republican.” This is ironic, but not surprising.

The definition of “conservative” is evolving — which means that one can appear to lurch leftward simply by standing still. The danger is in remaining consistent to conservative principles. This phenomenon was at least partly explained in a 2010 essay penned by Patrick J. Deneen: “Because conservatism defines itself relative to the current position of its more liberal opponent,” he noted, “it has come [to] occupy space that has been abandoned by a leftward-moving opposition.”

Interestingly, some people flourish under this arrangement. They are as follows: Those who are (shall we say) philosophically flexible, those who just want to win, those who just want to make money, and the new converts to the movement (who lack the appropriate institutional knowledge to realize they are now supporting the things hard-core conservatives used to fight). This, of course, is an old story; at some point, even revolutionaries become heretics.

If this sounds overwrought, look no further than the pages of this weekend’s Wall Street Journal for an example. Regarding the topic of entitlement reform, and echoing Paul Ryan, renowned money manager Stan Druckenmiller argues: “‘I would go for something simple that is very, very tough for the other side to argue, for example, means-testing Social Security and Medicare,’ which would adjust benefits by income … ‘I don’t need it. I don’t want it,'” he avers.

Okay, this makes sense. Conservatives who care about the debt ought to support means testing, right?

Not so fast.

Because of Obamacare, “[t]he new ‘conservative’ position,” writes Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. (also at the Journal), “will be to defend Social Security and Medicare, those middle-class rewards for a life of hard work and tax-paying, against Mr. Obama’s vast expansion of the means-tested welfare state for working-age Americans.

“Look for means testing possibly even to evolve into a new pejorative in Republican mouths, suggesting undeserved benefits for groups that mostly vote Democrat,” he continues.

Who knows if this shift will happen, but it certainly might. Could Republicans pass up the chance to be opportunistically and reflexively against anything Barack Obama is for?

While means testing certainly isn’t a litmus test or a defining issue for conservatives, it serves as a microcosm of a larger trend. One can’t escape the fact that conservatives have spent a decade, or so, arguing for means testing — if for no other reason than to get under the skin of liberals. Yet, one can certainly imagine a day when doing so would be interpreted as an act of conservative apostasy. For anyone paying attention (like the media), this is transparently inconsistent.

For center-right journalists and commentators, this has personal and professional implications: Should you become a hack and suddenly change positions on means testing and be a good soldier? Or should you be an intellectually consistent RINO, and continue to support it? (Those, it seems, are the options.)

To outside observers, this sort of thing just makes a movement appear erratic. And it’s easy to parody. Consider this Tweet I noticed this morning about the Obamacare website glitches: “Basically the new conservative argument against Obamacare is that people can’t get it fast enough.” Clearly, there is something schizophrenic about much of today’s conservative political rhetoric.

The bottom line is that conservatives no longer know what they stand for. And that must change.

Look, movements must adapt to the times, so this is certainly not unprecedented. And it might even be a necessary step. But there are growing pains. And conservatives are feeling them now.

The process of growing up is the process of finding out who you are — what you believe in. That’s a sign of maturity. The modern conservative movement, it seems to me, is in the process of some serious soul searching. And this probably is healthy, if painful.

Matt K. Lewis