What Republicans Stress When They Can't Say 'Conservative'

The constantly invoked term elides as much as it explains about what GOP voters want in a nominee.

Justin Hall/Flickr

Last week, I argued that when Republicans say they want their nominee in 2016 to be a "conservative" candidate, they're unwittingly talking past one another, because Republican voters have such different notions of what "conservative" means. And I challenged Republicans who want a "conservative" standard bearer to describe their ideal candidate over email without recourse to that word.

Lots of Republicans obliged. And the responses illustrate that "conservative" does elide a lot of crucial distinctions. I suspect that after reading the selection of responses below, readers on both the right and left will expand their notion of what it means when someone identifies themselves as a conservative American. Here goes.

Scott wants a leader who would attack regulatory capture:

I'm a staunch "conservative" Republican, but I hadn't thought about how that term oversimplifies the differences within my party. I believe that in Washington, people who profit from government collude with government officials (elected or otherwise) to increase their power over Americans through excessive regulation and taxation. They also use these levers of power to create minority voting blocs which perpetuate their authority. In my next President, I want someone who understands how these structures operate and wants to dismantle them, especially within his own executive branch, not someone who will simply step in and attempt to use them for the benefit of Republicans.

Todd is looking for a Madisonian:

I would like a candidate who, when deciding whether it’s proper to use the government to effect a particular project, would instinctively ask three questions:

1)  Is it within the powers granted to the government by the applicable constitution?

2)  Is it something that needs to be done by the government or can the same be done by some other body or group?

3)  If yes to the above, what is the governmental level closest to the people at which it can be done?

Joseph is looking for a pragmatic, fiscally conservative noninterventionist:

On January 20th, 2017, my Republican candidate became my president. In their inaugural address, they stayed away from taboo words like conservative or liberal and stratospheric platitudes too... they reached their arms out to 100% of the nation--even though not that many--not even close--had voted for them. They offered a pragmatic, realistic approach to the issues of the day. Community college for all is a nice idea, but first lets focus on the crushing debt so that tomorrow's graduates can focus their energies on building their lives and the lives of their children rather than propping up government largesse. It is important that America be a force for good in the world, but lets remember that we are one nation and cannot single handedly remake the globe in our image. Sure we can have disagreements on a number of issues, but lets remember that we are all Americans and that we are all entitled to the rights and privileges established in our constitution--the right to free speech, the right to trial by jury, and the right to have an even playing field to marry who we want, build the life we want, and succeed--or fail--on their merits of our deeds and not on the prejudices of ourselves or others.

My candidate doesn't call themselves a conservative. They call themselves a business owner, a parent, a partner, a police officer, a teacher. They call themselves a problem solver and a consensus builder, a hard worker and an idealist--but a realist at the same time. In 2016 in beyond, it's more important that a Republican presidential candidate offer solutions to the nation's problems rather than a check mark on a narrow litmus test. This--after all--is the true measure of a leader.

Adam is a proponent of federalism and assertive U.S. interventions abroad, among other things:

Here's my ideal candidate.  
1) He/She is cautious. I believe strongly that while the status quo on any given issue may be bad, it is always possible and often quite easy to make things worse.  Therefore, reforms should be doled out deliberately and in a measured fashion, always with an eye out for possible unintended consequences.  
2) He/She is a small-f federalist.  Having upwards of fifty different bodies of law active at once in this country may be inefficient and confusing, but I believe that there are real benefits to allowing states and localities a large amount of autonomy, especially on issues that are nationally contentious.  Not only can states and localities experiment with different policy solutions to different policy problems, thus providing something vaguely resembling actual social-scientific experimental data, they allow the specific regional subcultures to express themselves without having to struggle over-much for national dominance.  Anything short of one side or the other's complete and total hegemony that can deflate the titanic national flamewars we currently have burning on any number of issues is something I'd welcome.
3) He/She is willing to throw American diplomatic, economic, and military weight around internationally.  This is an unpopular opinion these days, but looking back at history I have come to the conclusion that uni- or bi-polar worlds are preferable to multi-polar ones.  The thought of a world like that of 1914 with multiple roughly-equal first-rate powers staring each other down - only this time with nuclear weapons - frightens the hell out of me.  For all that we inevitably will get blowback whenever we intervene, I think a pax Americana, like the pax Brittanica, pax Romanum, or even pax Mongolica before it, is preferable to the alternatives currently available.
4) He/She is willing and able to effectively manage - and if necessary pare back - the administrative state. Purely from an organizational perspective, the Madisonian "three branches" are very well balanced, even if occasionally one does gain a temporary ascendency.  However the executive agencies that have sprung up during the past sixty or so years threaten to throw the system out of whack and create perverse incentives for governance.  Due to the doctrine of Chevron deference, the courts are unwilling to touch most agency decisions, and the Congress is either too lazy, too divided, or too incompetent to effectively check agencies except in the worst circumstances.  The agencies in some form are necessary to run our government.  However, they need to be efficiently and effectively checked just like any other branch. These are the general principles I reference when I use the word "conservative." Some people will say things that make me seem very much like an outlier–and perhaps I am.  But such is life.

Fred puts forth a number of specific wants:

  1. Find a great manager who is personable and..... truly cares about this country.
  2. Provide a balanced budget via the Penny Plan.
  3. Provide a strong defense.
  4. Control borders and immigration system; we go back to to admitting who we want to admit after a thorough evaluation.
  5. Prioritize personal tax reform and simplification....fair tax/flat tax....just something, please.  The current mess is a national disgrace.  Lower corporate taxes.
  6. Legalize small amounts of marijuana, sell it in drugstores and allow adults to grow 3-4 plants.
  7. Quickly develop and implement a plan for energy security.  No more dependence on Islamic countries in the Middle East.
  8. Minimize welfare and food stamps.  Even Bill Clinton worked to do this.
  9. Abolish Obamacare.  Open the healthcare system to TOTAL competition.  For those who really want government care....provide a VERY basic system with no bells and whistles (ala medicaid) at county hospitals.
  10. Get unions out of government and schools.  Provide school vouchers for ANY student desiring such.

Bill calls for "common sense":

I’ve maintained all along that the Tea Party rebrand itself as the Common Sense Party. Taking that a step further, much of what true conservatives/Republicans espouse is so often just common sense. You can’t spend more than you take in. You can’t defeat an enemy without naming who it is. You can’t have more people on the government dole than taxpayers who pay for those on the dole. Things like this are just common sense and should be used used as bullet points at every opportunity.

Crisostomo wants character and forcefulness:

I want in a candidate for POTUS genuine honesty, integrity, and self-respect.

I expect executive leadership expertise gained from leading a successful for-profit company that creates jobs and pays fair wages. I expect patriotism, love of family and values, the preservation of American culture and sovereignty.

I want a strong leader who can deal, work, and negotiate wisely and firmly with allies and mete out American justice upon the enemy swiftly with absolute certainty of annihilation and obliteration without hesitation. I expect a POTUS who wants a safe America, an economically robust America, and an America that enforces the law of the land.

I want a POTUS who aggressively discredits political correctness at every turn, who does not give in to environmental fanaticism, who is not afraid to abolish bureaucracies no matter how entrenched, who respects the co-equal branches of government, who upholds the first and second amendment rights, state's rights, and who will dismantle the onerous tax system, the IRS and the Department of Education, and who will spearhead an effort to come up with a better health care plan than Mr Obama's abominable creation.

But I can dream, can't I? I will settle for a strong Commander-in-Chief who can stare danger in the eye and tell the world, "Americans win at every encounter - friendly or hostile. We can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare. Your choice."

Jim's agenda focuses on the personal integrity of citizens:

The terms we should review and take to heart, as Americans, are, first of all Revolution.  We are a Revolution.  A Revolution against tyranny, against Monarchy, Oligarchy, and any other political form which limits the rights of an individual.  The second term which we must endear is balance. We must balance the need to keep order through laws to run our society.  As an individual, we must each do our best to keep a standard of values which balances an ability to fulfill our own needs with a recognition others needs are different and we are best to all allow each other the ability to live according to our needs.  If those needs incur upon the law or rights of other individuals, it needs to be reviewed under the standards of law.

In regards to Governance, I believe Government at all levels should be frugal, or at the least, held to a higher standard of value.  However, I cannot expect there to be a high Government standard without having a high personal standard.  If I am blessed to make more money than others, than I am obligated to be charitable, and use a portion of my time and wealth to help those less fortunate.  I honestly believe an individual is bound, by social contract, to give their time and physical effort to charitable cause, specifically to those in need, as it fulfills the religious or personal moral contract many of us adhere to, and it keeps a better defined reality in our everyday lives.  I know very few people that maintain disdain for poverty, homelessness, and hunger that have, as part of their lives, a concerted effort to be involved with those that suffer.

Will wants markets in everything:

In the 2016 primaries I will be looking for a candidate who:

- Believes free markets and free trade are the best way to lift people out of poverty

- Supports a free market for health care in place of the employer-based insurance system

- Recognizes that freedom of movement (i.e., immigration) is an integral part of free trade

- Would use military force only when there is a clear and reasonably attainable objective

- Believes in stopping crime at the source, not by depriving law-abiding citizens of constitutional rights (applies to both the 2nd and 4th amendments)

Do I care about things like "executive experience" and "management skills"?  Maybe less than I should.  If one candidate was clearly most in line with me ideologically, I'd find it hard to vote for a different person based on experience. As you can no doubt imagine, some of those traits are easier to find in the Republican Party than others.

Fred wants to uphold the Constitution—and investigate Obama's eligibility to be president:

...the "conservative" leader I am pursuing will be an executive [e.g. governor] who propounds accountability in finance, politics, and ethics.  He/she will positively "uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States."

He/she will abolish his/her predecessor's executive orders.

He/she will instruct the Justice Department to definitely establish BHO's eligibility for the office of President and further instruct them to pursue legal action to recover all monies spent on the Obamas if it proves he was illegally invested in the Presidency. He/she will not throw people to the curb or ditch them in the gutter while vilifying those who are productive and offering jobs and while buying votes with tax increases and bloated welfare payouts. He/she will aver the sentiment that socialism eventually fails because one eventually runs out of other people's money [M. Thatcher].  In short, then, an American Conservative insists that "We the people" own and operate the government; that we the people will defend the Constitution against all enemies both domestic and foreign; that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness requires productivity from all citizens while we are helping one another in those pursuits. Wow!  How's that for an inaugural sound byte?  [In effect that is a conservative paraphrase of "Ask not what your country can do for you, etc..."].

Shane wants emphasis on the 10th Amendment, manufacturing and the working class:

The Republican presidential candidate should first and foremost be committed to Constitutional governance. Guaranteeing only the basic and fundamental rights of liberty and justice, along with the common defence, we require a fundamental change towards a much more limited government - financial, regulatory and morality. We must make progress towards returning to a Constitutional Balance of Powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of our government.

We must return power to the People and the States by re-emphasizing the Ninth and Tenth Amendments while continuing to defend a strict interpretation of the complete Bill of Rights. We must eliminate a federal taxation policy that requires federal programs to be employed by the States and then forcing States' policies and governance in those and other areas by withholding the funding of those programs. Actively eliminate or revise programs that are beyond the federal government's Constitutional authority and/or financial prudence.

Become the party of All Working Americans as well as Industry. Simplify the tax code to reduce that burden on the whole of the middle class. Also, create the modern world's smallest tax rate for corporations and small businesses that demonstrate and sustain the creation and manufacturing of products here, banking here and employing a workforce of US Citizens while demonstrating real wage growth and offering tax credits for companies who demonstrate the ability to retrain and re-equip people's careers when their former roles are becoming obsoleted. Invest in our nation's infrastructure in a limited but impactful way when there is a clear return on investment significantly better than what private industry and local governments can do on their own.

Relentless defense of freedom should be an over-reaching goal in all that we do. Use that to solve tough issues we currently face such as immigration and non-traditional marriage and families. Pursue a vast overhaul and modernization of our immigration system and then protect our borders. Redefine the legal and financial benefits of legal marriage to be sensical in terms of the benefit it returns to our nation - e.g., that could be the support of pro-creation including through adoption and the benefits of a parent at home and its return on investment to our nation - and promote freedom by removing government from the definition of marriage outside the scope of a limited legal system. Defend our nation against its enemies foreign and domestic. Enhance our support of our defenders and their families, both while serving and after.

They all want what they call "a conservative."

Going forward, I hope that Republicans will ask one another to Taboo "conservative" when the word comes up during intra-right debates on Election 2016. Otherwise, there's no way of knowing what the people talking actually mean by it.