Does the Conservative Movement Really Want the GOP Nominee to Lead It?

That people expect as much from Mitt Romney isn't just a problem for him

-- it's a problem for conservatism, too.

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Puzzling over why Mitt Romney isn't connecting with conservative voters, John Fund offers a hypothesis in National Review. "Mitt Romney doesn't seem to realize he is campaigning for two jobs, not one," he writes. "He is doing quite well in the race to become the Republican nominee for president, and must still be considered the strong favorite. But ever since Barry Goldwater captured the GOP nomination in 1964, the Republican nominee has been more or less the titular head of the conservative movement, the most important single component of the Republican party."

This attitude is shared by Tea Partiers to whom I've spoken. They want in the Republican nominee a Ronald Reagan figure who'll unite the right and govern as an unapologetic conservative. Understandably so. What they perhaps don't appreciate -- even correcting for the gulf that separates the Reagan of their imagination from the actual man -- is how singular a figure Reagan was, and that treating GOP presidents as titular heads of movement conservatism more often ends in disaster.

The recent example is George W. Bush, whose name and tenure go unmentioned in the race for the Republican nomination, so thoroughly did he discredit himself (assisted by self-described conservatives who put partisan loyalty before principle). Nor was it the first time that the Republican Party and its leader set back the several causes of movement conservatism.

Richard Nixon served in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he resigned the presidency in disgrace. Put the Watergate scandal aside, for it doesn't bear one way or another on conservative orthodoxy. Instead let's review his domestic policy, bearing in mind that if you asked your average Tea Partier, "Who is more conservative, Richard Nixon or Barack Obama?" they'd call the latter a socialist. Yet it was Nixon who imposed wage and price controls. In a quirk of history, it was actually Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney who implemented them! The conservative movement also has Richard Nixon to thank for creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And he sought to bring universal health care to the United States long before Bill and Hilary Clinton. One half-expects new research from Dinesh D'Souza purporting to uncover his Kenyan anti-colonial roots.  

The Republican Party has very rarely been a force for conservatism. And while Reagan came closer than anyone since Goldwater, even he falls far short of what the average Tea Partier now demands.

As Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie puts it in Time magazine's recent symposium on conservatism:

At least since the election of St. Ronald Reagan, self-styled conservatives have repeatedly revealed themselves to be the biggest frauds or most delusional suckers in American politics. Conservatives ostensibly believe in limited government and individuals who are smart and moral enough to use voluntary associations and free markets to meet the needs of all God's children.

But under Reagan and, more recently, George W. Bush and a Republican Congress that spent like LBJ on a bourbon-fueled bender, they cheered an immense increase not just in federal outlays and borrowing but also in centralization of power in Washington. The "FDR Democrat" Reagan saved entitlements for the old and the relatively wealthy by jacking up payroll taxes on the young and relatively poor. Bush and his congressional playmates created No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug plan, the Transportation Security Administration and at least two wars that can only be reckoned tragic wastes of blood and treasure.
This doesn't give Reagan his due, but I understand the impulse to puncture the myth that surrounds him. For decades now, it has caused conservatives to imagine that if only they can elect the right charismatic Republican president, he can double as champion of their movement and shrink the federal government, a feat that wasn't among St. Reagan's several impressive accomplishments.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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