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Cloudy Fortunes for Conservatism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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 are changing.


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 corporations.

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 federal establishment."

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 which.

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.


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