Don’t Let Republicans Tell You What ‘Conservatism’ Is

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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As we begin a Republican presidential primary with overtones of 1964 — when the party needed to be reborn in a conservative mold — it’s important as conservatives to analyze the competing interests very carefully.

The Republican Party, willing to mortgage the conservative movement to enact its own agendas, doesn’t seem to care much what happens to conservatism in the long run. So let’s be skeptical this time around when Republicans tell us what “conservatism” means. Because I remember when conservatism proved weak enough that its very definition almost changed.

In 2004, the presidential election seemed a whole lot more intense than elections past. Jon Stewart was at the height of his fame, Michael Moore was out with “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Bill O’Reilly and Al Franken were feuding, and a whole bunch of new youthful political websites were popping up to write about the news in a more emotional way.

Most young people I knew at the time were John Kerry boosters, with a great many joining Kerry after anti-war progressive Howard Dean flopped in Iowa. A small handful of students I knew were Bush supporters and self-identified “conservatives.” Some of them actually came from conservative families that voted for Reagan back in the day and actually supported free-market capitalism and limited government. But that’s not what the “conservative” issue was at that time.

The issue was the war. And it was the only issue. If you supported the war in Iraq, then you were a conservative and a Republican. If you didn’t support the war in Iraq, then you were a liberal and a Democrat. That was not only the case on campuses. It was the way things were everywhere. The election, and thus our entire political process, was a referendum on one military intervention that President Bush decided to undertake.

Such was Bush’s political power — and remember, within the GOP, it was once immense — that he managed to turn all of conservatism into a support group for a single invasion that should have been over in a few weeks and instead stretched on for so many godawful years. Barry Goldwater didn’t have any say in what “conservative” meant in 2004. Ronald Reagan didn’t get a vote in defining “conservative.” Bush proved bigger than conservatism, because conservatism changed for him.

Many others — Jim Antle, for one — have made an eloquent case for why the Iraq War was not really a conservative endeavor, so I won’t dwell on it. But it’s important to remember how malleable the term “conservative” became when the Republican Party’s leader needed it to. And that leader — a Rockefeller establishment type to begin with — didn’t leave conservatism better off than he found it. By the time the next election came around in 2008, no students were conservatives. And none of the students who would have been conservatives really even knew what the term meant anymore.

Conservative just means, Bush supporter, right? So most of the would-be conservative students started calling themselves “libertarians.”

So let’s remember that when other issues come before us during this primary. Let’s ask ourselves: where does this viewpoint come from? Who stands to gain from it? Is it REALLY in line with the conservative ideology, as borne in 1964? And if we take this viewpoint on, is it going to help conservatism in the long run?

It’s OK to be skeptical of Republican orthodoxy this year. Hell, this is the time to scrutinize each part of it. Because if conservatism isn’t protected — and clearly defined — this time around, well …

I’ll give you my own issue I’m skeptical about: the environment.

The Republican line is that “global warming” and “climate change” is a fraud. I agree to a certain extent. It’s most likely trumped-up alarmism to swing the balance of power and government money toward Solyndra-type solar-panel companies run by progressives who don’t know anything about energy. Certainly, that’s the way the Obama administration has manipulated the issue. As for Al Gore’s predictions of impending doom? Eh. I’ve been hearing this stuff for years, and I’m only underwater financially.

But, living in a city, I sure do breathe in a whole lot of air pollution. If I go to Los Angeles, the smog clouds are so thick rappers try to date them. The California soil, meanwhile, is dryer than [punchline redacted]. The Ozone layer is irrefutably busted.

Didn’t Ronald Reagan, in his final Republican National Convention speech, brag about how 12 years of Reagan-Bush made the air cleaner than it was in 1972? Didn’t 86 percent of Republicans believe in stricter environmental laws in 1992? Why did that drop to 47 percent by the time Mitt Romney ran for office? I don’t believe in more laws of any kind, but even conservatives were willing to budge on that issue.

Does being a Republican now mean that you have to be pro-pollution? Seriously. Did it maybe happen when people who pollute a lot turned that into a wedge issue?

I don’t want heavy EPA regulations but hold on a second. I didn’t sign up for any kind of “Go Kill A Polar Bear” crusade. I don’t work in the oil industry and I don’t really care, frankly, about those fellas’ bottom line next fiscal year. They’re doing just fine, all things considered.

I don’t feel like mocking folks who drive a Prius. If I buy a car again at some point, it will probably be a hybrid. Why not? Why should I be personally responsible for more pollution than I have to be?

And if a fully functional electric car came on the market, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wouldn’t that actually be, like, one of the greatest things to happen in human history? Because then, you know, that resource in the Middle East that is rapidly running out wouldn’t matter anymore and we wouldn’t have to deal with the guys guarding it — the ones who cut people’s heads off and fly planes into the World Trade Center. I’d sure like to un-friend those folks.

If conservatism is about private-sector innovation shouldn’t we be racing to try to build electric cars or to try to harvest renewable energy sources that don’t make our home planet — for lack of any completely objective study on any of this — go “frownie-face”? Can’t Republicans and conservatives start owning this issue in a way that is in line with our own ideology? The fact that the oil industry is Republican? That’s just a matter of recent political arrangement. There’s nothing ideological about it. And conservatism, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t need to be used as a vehicle to protect recent political arrangements.

That’s one Republican viewpoint that I’m certainly skeptical about as it relates to the practice of conservatism. Don’t feel like a RINO for questioning. Odds are, the people who don’t want you to question some of these policies are RINOs themselves.

There’s a world of differences in this primary. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul barely have any business being in the same hemisphere, let alone the same political party. But conservatives have a responsibility to hold both of them accountable.

The Republican Party, by design, is fluid. But conservatism should be harder than [punchline redacted].

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