Well, this wasn't the plan.
The Republican race hasn't exactly followed any of the scripts laid out for
it. His win in his home-state Michigan primary notwithstanding, Mitt Romney
has been hacked apart like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy
Grail." John McCain's fortunes - which had been bouncing up and down like a
printout of Dick Cheney's EKG - spiked northward after his victory in New
Hampshire. Fred Thompson ran a brilliant "testing the waters" campaign from
his front porch, but when he tried to walk on the water, he sank like a
basset hound trying to swim. Pushing the poor beast under the waves was Mike
Huckabee, whose down-home folksiness makes Thompson look like David Niven.
Huckabee's surprise surge in Iowa has made him this season's pitchfork
populist, albeit a much nicer one - sort of a Disneyland Pat Buchanan. Then
there's Ron Paul. He started out as the designated whack job, then became so
successful that the Des Moines Register had to cast Alan Keyes in the role
of hopeless firebrand wing nut for a brief campaign cameo. And it's a sign
of how poorly Rudy Giuliani - once the indisputable front-runner - has done
that I'm now mentioning him only after Paul.
Of course, this could all change with the next contest.
Much of this chaos is attributable to the fact that this is a very flawed
field, or at least one ill-suited for the times we're in. If a camel is a
horse designed by committee, then this year's Republican field looks
downright dromedarian. This slate of candidates has everything a
conservative designer could want - foreign policy oomph, business acumen,
Southern charm, Big Apple chutzpah, religious conviction, outsider zeal,
even libertarian ardor - but all so poorly distributed. As National Review
put it in its editorial endorsement of Romney (I am undecided, for the
record): "Each of the men running for the Republican nomination has
strengths, and none has everything - all the traits, all the positions - we
are looking for."
But conservatives should contemplate the possibility that the fault lies
less in the stars - or the candidates - than in ourselves. Conservatism,
quite simply, is a mess these days. Conservative attitudes are changing. Or,
more accurately, the attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives
The most cited data to prove this point come from the Pew Political Typology
survey. By 2005, it had found that so many self-described conservatives were
in favor of government activism that it had to come up with a name for them.
"Running-dog liberals" apparently seemed too pejorative, so the survey went
with "pro-government conservatives," a term that might have caused Ronald
Reagan to spontaneously combust. This group makes up just under 10 percent
of registered voters and something like a third of the Republican coalition.
Ninety-four percent of pro-government conservatives favored raising the
minimum wage, as did 79 percent of self-described social conservatives.
Eight out of 10 pro-government conservatives believe that the government
should do more to help the poor, and slightly more than that distrust big
There's more evidence elsewhere. As former Bush speechwriter David Frum
documents in his new book, "Comeback," income taxes are no longer a terribly
serious concern among conservative voters. Young Christian conservatives and
others are increasingly eager to bring a faith-based activism to government.
As conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru recently noted in Time, younger
evangelicals are more likely to oppose abortion than their parents were, but
they are also more likely to look kindly on government-run anti-poverty
programs and environmental protection. Even Bush (in)famously proclaimed in
2003 that "when somebody hurts, government has got to move."
This is a far cry from the days when Reagan proclaimed in his first
inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem;
government is the problem," and vowed to "curb the size and influence of the
Today the American public seems deeply schizophrenic: It hates the
government - Washington, Congress and public institutions are more unpopular
than at any time since Watergate - but it wants more of it. Conservative
arguments about limited government have little purchase among independents
and swing voters. This is a keen problem for a candidate like Romney,
because it forces him to vacillate between his credible competence message -
"I can make government work" - and his strategic need to fill the
"Reaganite" space left vacant by former Sen. George Allen's failure to seize
it and Thompson's inability to get anyone to notice that he occupies it.
Worse, conservatives who want activist government want it to have a
populist-Christian tinge, and that's not a pitch McCain, Giuliani, Thompson
or Romney can sell.
Many of the younger conservative policy mavens and intellectuals have become
steadily less enamored of free markets and limited government. Washington
Post columnist Michael Gerson, formerly Bush's chief speechwriter, has
crafted a whole doctrine of "heroic conservatism" intended to beat back the
right's supposed death-embrace with small government and laissez-faire
economics. He calls for moral crusade to become the animating spirit of the
right. He's hardly alone. "Crunchy conservatism," the brainchild of Dallas
Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, is also a cri de coeur
against mainstream conservatism. Both of these derive from the kind
of thinking that led Bush to insist in 2000 that he was a "different kind of
Republican" because he was a "compassionate conservative" - a political
program that apparently measures compassion by how much money the government
spends on education, marriage counseling and the like.
The most revealing development of the campaign so far is Huckabee's success
at displacing Thompson as the candidate of the socially conservative South.
Thompson's failure to translate the excitement about his pre-candidacy into
anything better than also-ran status is largely attributable to a lackluster
campaign. But there's at least something symbolic about the fact that
Huckabee has become, in the words of Commentary's John Podhoretz, "the
socially conservative Southern pro-life candidate with a silver tongue and a
pleasingly low-key affect."
Thompson is a traditional mainstream conservative. He'd be equally
comfortable at an American Enterprise Institute conference, a Federalist
Society luncheon or a county fair. Taken at his word, Thompson is a
card-carrying Reaganite, favoring low taxes, a strong defense and a shrunken
role for the federal government.
Huckabee is nearly the philosophical opposite. He would even use his power
as president to push for a national ban on public smoking. "I'm one of the
few Republicans," Huckabee insists, "who talk very clearly about the
environment, health care, infrastructure, energy independence. I don't cede
any of those to the Democrats."
When Huckabee says that, he means it in the same way that Bush promised not
to surrender health care and education to his opponents when he ran as a
"compassionate conservative." As a result, we got the biggest federal
government expansion into education in history and the largest spike in
entitlement spending since the Great Society.
Huckabee says he's a "paradoxical conservative," and his success suggests
that this is the wave of the future on the right. McCain, who may be
emerging as the "establishment" candidate, proves the point. He's more
socially conservative than many believe, but he often enjoys earning (and
deserving) the enmity of the Republican Party's conservative base. Would
anyone be shocked if this putative "establishment candidate" ended up
picking Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate?
There are important differences - on national security, the role of
government, religion - among the different brands of conservatism bubbling
up. But none necessarily reflects the views of the pro-government and social
conservative rank and file. The center of the right does not hold, and so we
see an army with many flags and many generals and nobody knows who goes with
In other words, there's a huge crowd of self-described conservatives
standing around the Republican elephant shouting, "Do something!" But what
they want the poor beast to do is very unclear. And it doesn't take an
expert in pachyderm psychology to know that if a mob shouts at an elephant
long enough, the most likely result will be a mindless stampede - in this
case, either to general election defeat or to disastrously unconservative
policies, or both.
The traditional conservative believes that if you don't have a good idea for
what an elephant should be doing, the best course is to encourage it to do
nothing at all. Alas, the chorus shouting, "Don't just do something, stand
there!" shrinks by the day.