The Changing Definition of 'Conservative'

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Since John McCain's defeat in 2008, the right has rejected the people and ideas it once praised

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The definition of "conservative," "moderate," and "liberal" are constantly shifting; they're relative terms, and positions that were radical for one generation can be mainstream the next and vice versa. But the goalposts of American conservatism have shifted wildly almost overnight.

During the 2008 presidential cycle, Mitt Romney was touted by the movement leaders as the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Now, there's a mad scramble to find someone -- anyone -- to run against him who's more conservative. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who left office with sky-high approval ratings after two terms as governor of arguably the most conservative state in the union, is considered a raging liberal and struggling to rise above two percent in the polls.

Meanwhile, longtime conservative stalwarts are suddenly finding themselves outside the movement.


Mitt Romney

On his Wednesday show, which aired the day after the Republican economic debate, radio talk icon Rush Limbaugh declared, "What's upsetting to me is the fait accompli that's attaching itself to Romney." He proclaimed, "70% of Republicans are not supportive of Romney right now. I think the Republican base, the conservative base that's the majority in this country is so far ahead of the leaders of the Republican establishment and the inside-the-Beltway media people."

And Limbaugh said that "Romney is not a conservative. He's not, folks. You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn't."

Limbaugh expressed his frustration that the real conservatives in the race -- Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann in particular -- weren't performing as well in the spotlight. But he blamed a lot of that on a liberal media that just doesn't understand the conservative message.

While conceding that Romney does a good job in debates, which he chalked up to more experience in that format than the other contenders, Limbaugh noted that, if Romney's "the nominee, Romneycare is not going to get a pass. It is going to be the bludgeon, it's gonna be the bludgeon that the Democrats use."

Now, that may well be the case. But it's worth noting that Romney signed his controversial health-care reform bill into law in April 2006.

Nearly two years later, Limbaugh endorsed Romney for the 2008 Republican nomination declaring that "there probably is a candidate on our side who does embody all three legs of the conservative stool, and that's Romney. The three stools or the three legs of the stool are national security/foreign policy, the social conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives."

Let's stipulate that Limbaugh was making that assessment based on the three plausible candidates available on February 5, 2008: Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee. He'd earlier seemed to be leaning toward Fred Thompson, whose campaign never really got off the ground. Still, the fact of the matter is that Limbaugh was perfectly comfortable considering Romney a full-fledged conservative three and a half years ago -- well after the passage of "Romneycare."


David Frum

Yesterday, Frum went on NPR to discuss with host Kai Ryssdal why he felt compelled to resign his long-held post as the conservative counterpoint to Robert Reich on "Marketplace." He explained that, "although I consider myself a conservative and a Republican, and I think that the right-hand side of the spectrum has the better answers for the long-term growth of economy -- low taxes, restrained government, less regulation -- it's pretty clear that facing the immediate crisis, very intense crisis, I'm just not representing the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days."

By way of example, he pointed to the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over handling the financial crisis and the ensuing global recession. "This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here's where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn't necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree. But it's not the medicine that's being prescribed now. The fact is I'm kind of an outlier. And it's a service to the radio audience if they want to hear people explaining effectively why one of the two great parties takes the view that it does -- it needs to have somebody who agrees with that great party. I'm hoping that the party will eventually agree with me, but I can't blink the fact that I don't agree with them on this set of issues."

Now, there's not much doubt that Frum is widely considered a moderate by today's lights. But it wasn't always so.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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