The Changing Definition of 'Conservative'

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.

He made his name as a conservative opinion writer at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the The American Spectator. His first book, Dead Right (1994), was described by William F. Buckley as "the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation." A speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he penned the infamous phrase "axis of evil." And he was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute from 2003 until he was fired last March.

But now he's so far outside the American conservative mainstream that he's routinely vilified as a Republican in Name Only and a traitor to the movement.

What Happened?

Parties losing elections tend to take one of two paths. Either they collectively decide that their platform is out of touch with public sentiment and adjust accordingly, or they decide that their problem was a poor candidate and weak messaging and double down.

The first path was taken in the early 1990s, as Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council shifted a Democratic Party stuck in the debates of the 1960s back to the center, co-opting several Republican positions while alienating parts of the base. While parts of the liberal-progressive core are still angry and unrepresented, the party went on to win three of the next five presidential contests and got the plurality of the popular vote in four of the five. This, after having lost five of the previous six.

The Republican Party took the second course after its 2008 defeat. Despite respect for his enormous courage during seven long years as a prisoner of war, conservatives never considered John McCain one of their own. He was nominated almost by default when Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and others more popular with the base imploded before the race really got started. And conservatives had been sold the idea that a relatively moderate candidate who could count on favorable press coverage would do well with the coveted "swing voters."

Rather than chalking the loss up to a combination of the economic crisis, weariness from two unpopular wars, and a particularly charismatic opponent, Republicans decided that the problem was that their leadership had been insufficiently true to the party's ideology. In particular, they were justly outraged, albeit in hindsight, at the profligate spending under Bush and a Republican Congress.

This sentiment grew into a force of nature with the tea party movement. Ostensibly a backlash against government bailouts and out-of-control spending, it became something of a purge of Republicans who were deemed too moderate, with tea-party-backed candidates challenging Republican incumbents and establishment favorites -- including McCain, who for a time looked likely to lose his Senate re-election race to former congressman J.D. Hayworth, before rallying for a comfortable win.

Longtime Delaware congressman Mike Castle was defeated by upstart Christine O'Donnell for the party's Senate nomination. Longtime Utah senator Bob Bennett lost to Mike Lee, who won the general election. Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski was beaten in the primaries by tea-party favorite Joe Miller. All three of the tea-party candidates lost, although Murkowski narrowly won re-election anyway, as an independent.

To be sure, conservatives had plenty of successes, most notably the populist Scott Brown taking the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by liberal lion Teddy Kennedy. And Marco Rubio, who successfully primaried sitting Republican governor Charlie Christ, went on to easily win the general election and looks to be a rising star in Republican politics.

The result of all this -- in addition to retaking the House and coming close to taking back the Senate -- is a Republican Party and conservative movement that is largely bereft of the moderates of the past. After years of political leaders spouting conservative mantras without doing much to turn them into policy, the congressional delegations now feature a critical mass of True Believers.

Democratic leaders have charged their Republican counterparts with bad faith and hypocrisy for filibustering and vilifying policy proposals that their own party had proposed in the recent past. In some cases, this is justified. In many, though, it's simply a function of the center of gravity having suddenly shifted. Proposals that came from the pages of National Review or the halls of the Heritage Foundation in 2006 may not be "conservative" by 2011 standards.

As many have noted, while conservative politicians constantly reference Ronald Reagan's legacy as the gold standard, it's arguable whether the Gipper himself would pass tea-party muster. After all, he signed a huge amnesty bill for illegal aliens into law and his signature tax cut left the top marginal rate at 50 percent. As we all know, anything above 35 percent is socialism.

Image credit: Joseph Kaczmarek/AP