Earlier this week, Pennsylvania Republicans - and quite a few Pennsylvania Democrats voting behind enemy lines - opted to renominate Arlen Specter as the GOP Senatorial candidate. Specter was challenged from the right by Pennsylvania Congressman Pat Toomey, who would have won were it not for President Bush's active support for Specter.
Now when I say Arlen Specter is unpopular with conservatives, I am employing the sort of understatement normally associated with such phrases as "Osama bin Laden is unpopular in America" and "foot fungus isn't my favorite thing."
National Review, the magazine for which I will work for the rest of my life (or until I can discover the formula for the slow-acting poison they slipped me), aggressively promoted Pat Toomey over Arlen Specter. This is hardly surprising for a publication that takes conservatism seriously and that ran a cover story last fall calling Specter "the worst Republican senator."
Many conservatives, myself included, are fairly outraged that President Bush is spending taxpayer dollars like a pothead teenager with a stolen credit card. Most of us, however, believe that Bush is still vastly preferable to the alternative, John Kerry, for a host of reasons. Hence, voting for Toomey over Specter - the White House's preferred candidate and one of the Senate's biggest spenders - was the best way for conservatives to signal to Bush that they're unhappy.
Unfortunately, Toomey lost by such a narrow margin - 15,000 votes - it's impossible not to blame the loss on Bush's support for Specter. It's not yet clear whether conservatives in Pennsylvania and across the country will hold a grudge.
Which brings me to the real point of this column. I'm constantly astounded by the confusion about the differences between conservatives and Republicans. The silver lining of the Toomey defeat is that everyone, the White House included, has been reminded that there is a distinction.
Obviously, this is a subtle and nuanced distinction. The Republican Party is the conservative party, and the overwhelming majority of conservatives vote Republican. So lots of people rightly consider themselves to be both conservatives and Republicans. But there's a difference all the same.
Conservatives are committed to a constellation of ideas and traditions that sometimes war with each other. Yet, at the end of the day, people who identify themselves as conservatives first tend to be more dedicated to their principles than their party. Meanwhile, Republicans, even very conservative ones, are more often team players, organization-oriented as opposed to ideas-oriented. The former wants to win arguments, the latter, votes.