Conservative dividing lines

Posted: Apr 30, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Here's a good example: During the Democratic primaries, Republicans rejoiced that the Democratic Party was spiraling off into Left-Loony-Land like Darth Vader's tie-fighter at the end of "Star Wars." This was undoubtedly great news for Republicans because when the Democratic Party moves to the left, it necessarily abandons the center, opening up the most politically valuable real estate for Republicans.

But as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out at the time, "Republicans who are conservatives ought not to be so cheery about what's going on. Conservative and Republican interests converge quite frequently, but not entirely. The resurgence of the Democratic Left is one of the places where they don't." He continued, "If Republicans are moving to the center and Democrats to the left, that means both parties are moving leftward - that the center of gravity of American politics is moving leftward."

In other words, if your first priority is to move American politics in a conservative direction, it doesn't always make sense to support the conservative party, i.e. the GOP, in every situation. In Pennsylvania, conservatives thought backing Specter would be disloyal to their principles, while the Republican National Committee may have thought that Toomey's conservative backers were being disloyal to the party.

Look, politicians care about getting reelected more than anything else. That's why, for example, Bush is bucking his base on illegal immigration - the GOP wants more Hispanic voters, while most conservatives want fewer illegal immigrants.

In fact, does anyone doubt that scores of Republican and Democratic congressmen would switch their positions even on abortion if they concluded such a switch would help them at the polls? (Paging Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Poppa Bush.) There's certainly no doubt in my mind that Arlen Specter would be pro-life if that would get him elected. I bet Specter would favor requiring women to wear burqas if that would guarantee him his seat for life.

The balance between conservatives and Republicans is a delicate one. As conservatives tend to be practical folks, they understand that the GOP brought them to the dance. But, just like the girl at the dance, they don't want to be taken for granted. Hopefully, the White House got that message in Pennsylvania.