From the beginning, this year’s Republican primary campaign has been rather surprising and filled with intra-party conflict. There seem to be multiple notions attempting to change the direction and attitude of the GOP in different ways. I hope that I’m just being overly pessimistic, but I am genuinely worried about the possible consequences the current battles may have for the party, conservatism, and the country (and, therefore, the world, actually.) That’s overly dramatic, I’m sure, but I do believe that this situation is a very serious matter.
One trend stems from the idea that the Republican party has not acted in a conservative-enough fashion, even when elected after promising to do so, and that it has been making a big mistake in selecting candidates thought to be more moderate, particularly as its presidential nominees. Therefore, strong efforts should be made to bring about different actions and results in the future. This drive seems to me to have begun with good intentions and conservative goals but to have made some unproductive and unfair choices in pursuit of positive change. What I've found troubling is the increasing tendency of some conservatives, notably some talk radio personalities and columnists, but also many members of the public, to keep redefining what the Republican party and conservatism should be and do in such ways that fewer and fewer people qualify for the labels. There have indeed always been some Republicans who are quite liberal, especially on certain issues, and some who have tended to side with Democrats when voting in Congress or to criticize mainstream conservative positions in the media. It is understandable for conservatives to express frustration with these politicians and to work to elect better alternatives. Now, however, regardless of a person’s overall record and views, it seems that any small disagreement with the “true conservatives” is enough to warrant branding as a “RINO” and excommunication from the conservative movement, even for people whose conservatism would not have been questioned just a short time ago. The most obvious example of this right now is probably Paul Ryan, and I may well discuss that gentleman some more another time, but at the moment I’d like to focus on the presidential race.
An important thing to note, of course, is that the above rule does not apply if your name is Donald Trump, in which case agreeing with conservatives (somewhat and only as of very recently) about just one or two issues is enough to make you acceptable as a presidential nominee. Welcome to Wonderland! The remarkable success of Mr. Trump’s campaign so far seems to illustrate the strength of another attitude currently exerting its influence on the Republican primary race. Many people seem to feel that our current political parties and methods of operation are completely incapable of doing things the way they should be done and that our elected officials are incompetent, corrupt, and/or not working in the real interest of the people and the country. As a result, drastic change is needed, starting with a completely new type of presidential candidate who comes from outside the system and is willing to say things others won’t. I think there are multiple problems with this mindset. It’s a pretty big risk to make someone with no experience or record in government President of the United States, and, if the experiment doesn’t go well, there could be far-reaching negative consequences. Also, those advocating for wholesale change in government don’t really seem very concerned about the specifics of the transformation they might bring about by electing a particular candidate. Attempts to point out areas in which a non-traditional candidate’s positions are not consistent or conservative are dismissed or criticized, and many of the problematic views and statements are even defended. Supporters do not want to hear anything negative about ‘their guy,” who must be a good choice because people who don’t feel the current Republican party and it’s elected officials are their enemies are against him. This doesn’t seem the most reasoned way to approach the hugely important decision of selecting a President, and people should not assume that something “new and different” is necessarily an improvement.
Since this summer, I’ve been disappointed by the treatment received by most of the candidates running for the Republican nomination this cycle. The field, especially at the outset of the campaign season, contained a veritable “who’s who” of current and former conservative governors and legislators, along with a couple of actual “moderate” candidates like George Pataki. But, instead of appreciating actually having multiple good conservative options from which to choose this time, a large segment of the Right opted instead to ignore, dismiss, or even attack most of these qualified candidates as unsuitably conservative, often while supporting or defending the candidate with the most liberal views and history (Mr. Trump.)
Before the campaign really even got underway, much of the energy of the change-seekers on the Right was devoted to criticism of Jeb Bush, the candidate perceived to be a potential front-runner and favored candidate of the so-called “establishment” of the Republican Party. It is perfectly reasonable for Governor Bush’s views on things such as immigration to lead conservatives to prefer other candidates, but here again, labeling him as some barely right-of-center moderate doesn’t seem to fit with his actual overall record or policy proposals, and I don’t think that he deserves the animosity that has been directed towards him in relation to this primary race. As Jeb Bush slipped down to single digits in the polls months ago, one would think that his detractors might have been satisfied and moved on, but he still seems to be the focus of disproportionate negative attention, especially in response to any critical comments or questions raised about Donald Trump.
For a long time, the polls showed all of the experienced, successful conservative politicians struggling to gain any significant level of support, and several of them, all accomplished governors, dropped out of the race at a very early stage while the popularity of “outsider” candidates soared. Finally, two Senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, had an increase in their polling numbers, and it seemed that perhaps they might be a couple of traditional candidates with a chance in the race. Many of the “anti-establishment” figures in conservative media have always been most supportive of Cruz, but for a while, at least, Rubio still seemed able to get a respectful hearing and civil treatment, even though he also has an immigration position that is not in favor among most conservatives and Republicans. More recently, though, I’ve heard his name spoken contemptuously on talk radio, and, no matter the totality of his record, he seems to have joined the ranks of those banished from the “conservative” fold, another casualty of the ever-shrinking circle drawn to include only “true” conservatives. I’m not sure exactly what precipitated the harsh new attitude towards Senator Rubio, but it seems likely to be a result of the growing perception that he might be the still-viable candidate likely to be most appealing to the conventional or ”establishment” voters and leaders of the party, along with the more direct competition seen to be developing between Rubio and Cruz, the favorite candidate of many conservative opinion leaders. In any case, I find it unfortunate. I think that it would be far better for us to approach the upcoming primaries and caucuses by examining and comparing the views, proposals, and relative merits of multiple conservative candidates than by dismissing most of the participants in the contest as unacceptable sell-outs not even worthy of consideration.
What seems especially puzzling to me is the way that this movement to seek “true conservatives” has been coexisting with the wave of support for Donald Trump, who is clearly not in that category. I understand that many of his supporters were not really involved in politics before, and many do not necessarily consider themselves very conservative. While these people are still making what I’d consider a poor choice, for them there may be no contradiction in supporting Mr. Trump -- they may either agree with him or be interested only in having someone they see as a leader in charge, not in the details of specific issues. However, for long-time conservative advocates, such as leading talk show hosts, to argue over and over again that what we need to move the country in the correct direction is to elect genuine constitutional conservatives, but then to also bend over backwards to defend the candidacy of someone like Donald Trump, whose first instincts on basically everything have been liberal and who doesn’t seem to have much concern for many Constitutional principles (including limits on executive power, private property rights, multiple aspects of freedom of speech, and many others,) is inexplicable to me. How can the same people who find Ted Cruz to be basically the only acceptable candidate who’s actually worked in government also be OK with the idea of Donald Trump as nominee or even president, when the two are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in the Republican field? The willingness to speak bluntly (at least sometimes, in Senator Cruz’ case) seems to be the main characteristic they might be thought to have in common, and I certainly hope that’s not being seen as a qualification overriding all other factors in choosing the Chief Executive.
I’m not a fan of either of the trends discussed here that are currently tugging conservatism in different directions. I agree that more conservatism -- actually articulated and acted upon -- would benefit our country, but I don’t think the way to gain support from more of the public for conservatism in elections and policy discussions is to push away people who’ve already been on the team. Far worse, however, would be to give up on these goals entirely by awarding the presidential nomination to someone who, no matter how certain defenders might try to spin things, is not at all conservative. While we may not be achieving conservative victories now, if neither major party is even attempting to stand for conservative principles or policy proposals, our national politics and world view will likely lurch much farther left very quickly, and no good can be expected to come from that outcome. I don’t know how the elections or the conflicts within conservatism and the Republican party will play out over the next year, but I certainly hope that people will make thoughtful choices that do not result in the destruction of conservatism as we know it.
Note: Since this post, first published on December 27, became so lengthy, I thought it might be best to leave it at the top of the page a little longer and take a bit of a holiday break. Happy New Year!