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Home What Does a Real Conservative Candidate Look Like?

What Does a Real Conservative Candidate Look Like?

If a true conservative is for small government, strong national defense and traditional values then there is no such candidate in the race. There might have been earlier, but there certainly isn't now.

It's a sad testament to the current state of the party that the choice is between two men who believe in global warming, one who believes in big government, another who believes the terrorists are right and a third who believes in open borders. But last election the choice came down to two men, both of whom believed in global warming and one of whom thought that waterboarding terrorists was torture. That man became the nominee. So maybe we're making some progress.

Critics will point out that Reagan didn't fit that mold too well either. They're right. No leader has. Standards are aspired to, but they are rarely here in the pure form. But the other aspect of the argument is that the standards change in response to the period. Libertarian positions seem more authentically conservative in no small part because of government failures.

That is why attacking Teddy Roosevelt using what we know now as if he were a current political figure is not a valid approach. Roosevelt was a product of his time. Our politicians are a product of ours. Reagan might have been a very different leader if he had been born 30 years later and had been elected 28 years later after the Cold War and its assumptions had been washed out of the common consciousness.

So what is a conservative really? A National Review piece described Romney as the real conservative simply because he was in the business world and defended corporate profits. The former would cover Warren Buffett and Ted Turner. And the latter probably would too depending on what day of the week you ran into them.

I had not planned to address the Bain Capital mess after last night's article, but the idea that an attack on Bain is an attack on capitalism is a misanderstanding of what free enterprise is. Free enterprise does not mean that companies are immune from criticism over the impact of their business, it means that government should not regulate them to bring them into line with a socially approved model of how to do business.

Bain Capital is not really a great candidate for flying the flag of capitalism and small government. One of the Bain companies petitioned for tariff quotas and its underfunded pension plan had to be bailed out by the government. I don't have a problem with using tariffs to protect American businesses under certain conditions, but the free trade purists who attacked Santorum for his opposition to NAFTA might.

But that's the other side of the coin. People who actually do business in the real world are a poor fit for free trade purists. Successful businesses don't run in strict compliance with an ideology. Any ideology. That's the paradox of championing someone like a capitalist as a paradigm of pure capitalism. Capitalism has never been all that pure and most large companies have reached out to the government for one thing or another.

Romney, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum all have a history of going big government to achieve their goals. And how else could it be? Two of them were governors of major states. One of them was the House Majority Leader. The fourth was a United States Senator. Whether or not they talked the talk, they were always going to be somewhat more flexible when they wanted to get things done. Even Ron Paul stayed in office by going to the same pork barrel as everyone else, while making a show of voting against the pork.

So much for doctrinal purity. And all that's left are goals and beliefs. Beliefs influence how you pursue goals. It's why candidates talk about their background and their lives so much. The ideology is a factor, but not the only factor, most successful politicians are post-ideological. They pursue goals by any means necessary.

That is certainly the impression that Romney gives. Santorum is at least honest about it and willing to say openly that he will use government to achieve his goals. Santorum's goals and values can be disagreed with, but at least we know what they are. What are Romney's real goals and values? It's hard to say. He must have them and he articulates them over and over again, but the more he talks the vaguer they become. He believes in all the things we do, except when he doesn't.

We can line up candidates by stated political positions and get one result. And line up candidates by the actual methods they have used to achieve their goals and get another result. On the first metric Romney and Santorum might be far apart. On the second metric Romney and Santorum would be close together. Perry and Gingrich would probably be right there too.

That's where a record comes in. Not just the record of votes, which is often a meaningless toll of positions taken for political reasons on bills that were always going to pass or were never going to pass, but a record of actions taken that actually mattered.

When we talk about values, there are two types of values. There are political values and there are the things that the candidate actually cares about. A candidate may have an official position on small government and may even mean it, but when given a chance to take action something he really needs, whether it's food for poor children or a bailout for an industry that provides jobs in his district, then 9 out of 10 times he will resolve the contradiction by supporting the specific value over the general political value.

Small government and politicians are a contradiction in terms. Political office depends on consensual decisions, even at the executive level. At the legislative level things get done collectively, rather than by a Mr. Smith going to Washington and hijacking all the legislative business until he gets his way. All those group decisions add up to positive legislation that employ power rather than negative legislation that give up power. Even for someone like Ron Paul who has made a career out of promoting small government, expediency is still in the mix.

All politicians who work in big government are big government politicians. There is no way around that. They may vary in the degree of how much government interference they support and how much they would like to restrict the power of government and finally in how much they have done to restrict it, but their tools are still the same. Even their methods are mostly the same.

So we have a race in which most of the candidates pay lip service to values while still employing expediency to achieve the things that they really care about and deviating from ideology when society changes. Which is to say they are politicians.

It all comes down to goals. If you believe that protecting and salvaging the family is at the center of the country's problems, then Santorum is your man. If you believe that we need someone in office who will use common sense policies to promote business, but without being confrontational about it, then vote Romney. If you want someone who will tackle a broad range of problems, but not always in ways that you agree with, then vote Gingrich. If you want an acceptable combination of Romney, Bush and Santorum, then you might be better off with Perry. If you want a candidate who will hold the line and reform the country, then you might gamble on Gingrich or gamble even more on Paul, but it's doubtful that there is any such candidate in this race.

Each of the candidates has their case to make. Santorum is right about the economic and social impact of the family, and as much as libertarians hate to hear it, there may not be a viable country without salvaging the family. Some libertarians have their own approach to the problem and they have a point that government solutions, even with the best intentions, hurt the family. But so do libertarian solutions.

Romney is right that his approach will probably help American businesses, create jobs and boost the economy. If he wins then a year later we will all probably be better off for it. Is he the man to tackle the larger economic problems caused by big government? No he isn't. And he will probably end up adding to those problems in the long run, even while creating relief in the short run.

Gingrich wants to tackle everything. Can he? Maybe. He's the only candidate who thinks big and who has a snapshot of the larger conflict, but his solutions may not be the right ones and they certainly won't follow a rigid ideology. Gingrich wants to be a great leader, but that means leading on ego and gambling that you are right. If anyone among the candidates has the background and the credentials in office to make that gamble, it's him, but he's a long way from a perfect or ideal candidate, and he has been wrong plenty of the time.

That leaves Perry, who in his own way is as vague as Romney, but whose cowboy image helps him dodge the questions that Romney can't escape. That may be because Perry is also a professional politician and with him in office, the effect a year from now also be a marked improvement for the economy. But like Romney his short term decisions will have long term consequences. Perry is a more conservative, but less electable version of Romney. He can probably win a general election, but for now he's doing poorly even here. If Obama wins, look for him to make a comeback in 2016 with a more polished approach.

Finally there's Ron Paul who in his own way has specialized in the same line as Romney. Being everything to everyone. You can be on the left and support Ron Paul. You can be on the right and support Ron Paul. Whatever policies you support, Ron Paul is for them or for allowing them at the state level. As with Romney it works better if you don't look too closely at the details. Ron Paul is for and against a range of social ills. He's for and against national defense. He's willing to be vague about 9/11 Deniers and a whole range of conspiracy theories, without quite subscribing openly to them.

But why should that be a surprise? Ron Paul has spent over two decades in congress. Whatever else he is, he is also a professional politician. So is everyone else on the list and that's the point.

Politics is a profession. It's one of the few professions whose professionals also consistently deny that they are politicians. A doctor doesn't come into his office and insist that he isn't a doctor and is only engaging in public service as a sacrifice to help people, but the first chance he gets, he's going home to get a real job. But being a politician has a negative image attached to it because it comes with the perception that you can't be trusted. Which politicians prove by lying about being politicians.

What does a real conservative candidate look like? Find the man or woman who has never been elected to anything, who gets shut out of everything, who gets dismissed as too extreme. They might be the one.


  1. Definitions change as time goes by.
    What was conservative in one generation is not in the next etc.
    Needs change, ideas morph.
    Would Aristotle be conservative? Socrates would be a radical liberal and died for it too.

    I think the problem is differing definitions of what is liberal and what is conservative anyway.
    Perhaps truth lies between the extremes. Perhaps we don't know anymore.

  2. We do need to define conversative, not politically in terms of issues and agendas but in terms of values and virtues.

    By conervative I mean someone who is thoughtful in making decisions, someone who is not impulsive. A man or woman with empathy (a big issue for me this year). I'd like the next president to be a man or woman of courage. Not in the traditional sense but like Moses or Esther.

    We can only hope and pray that a peron like that comes out of the shadows.

  3. Is there still time for someone new to jump into the race?

    If so, my choice would be and has been John R. Bolton. I was really counting on him stepping into the fray earlier, but I would support him now if he would just answer the call.

    In John Bolton we would have a strong conservative candidate who has never run for any political office, but who has a lot of experience in an advisory capacity, and whose foreign affairs experience would be a great asset as president. He has been my candidate of choice since 2008, and he is the only person I can think of who knows the UN inside out, and will not allow that institution to circumvent our constitution.

    I do wish there was a way to convince him to run.

  4. Daniel ended: “What does a real conservative candidate look like? Find the man or woman who has never been elected to anything, who gets shut out of everything, who gets dismissed as too extreme. They might be the one.”

    That would be me. I’ve never been elected to any office, have been shut out of everything, and have been called “extreme.” And then I’d object to being called a “conservative.” I’ve never once read or heard anywhere the exact definition of a “conservative,” apart from what leads off the article that “a true conservative is for small government, strong national defense and traditional values.” Yes, I would be “for” small, or limited government that upheld and protected individual rights and that prohibited the government from entering the economy (that is, the private trades that make up an economy, and governments produce nothing and trade in nothing except power), and for a strong national defense to ensure our survival in a world of predatory wolf packs (e.g., Islam, Chavez of Venezuela, Putin of Russia), but I’m not sure what “traditional values” are. Are they “family,” church, Rotary Clubs, Boy Scouts, bingo, Brooks Brothers suits? I’ve never seen a catalogue of “traditional values” that nailed down the meaning of that phrase. I’d much prefer the designation of “radical for capitalism.” Those are my politics.

    And what’s a “tradition,” anyway? It’s a thing or action or ritual that reaffirms some fundamental principle or value. But what are “conservative” principles or values? What is it that conservatives wish to “conserve”? Excuse me, but I take words seriously. I have never been able to grasp what it was that should be “conserved.” In the 19th century it might have meant preserving freedom and keeping politicians and the government out of your life; in the 20th, preserving a minimal welfare state; in the 21st, preserving a gargantuan but “responsible” government that looks after everyone and leaves no citizen behind, even if he doesn’t want to travel with the mob. That a president wears $500 suits and his wife grooms herself are irrelevancies.

    Someone enlighten me, please. Because, as Daniel describes conservatives here, we are sunk, and it will make no difference who wins the election this year. One may as well call Obama a conservative, for he’ll wish to “conserve” everything he’s accomplished.

  5. Anonymous11/1/12

    This blog post should be disseminated as an article--- absolutely spot-on-the-leopard spot on.

    It almost makes me want to vote for one of these candidates.

  6. Edward.... perhaps they want to "conserve" the Constitution..... That does not mean one has to be against change in our society and how society views certain ills of this world, but it means making those changed within the confines of the Constitution and not on a whim.

  7. Thomas G. Lee: I've never heard a conservative say he wanted to "conserve" the Constitution. Frankly, I don't think there's a liberal or conservative who understands or ever understood the function and purpose of the Constitution. If "conserve" means "preserve," then, not so facetiously, conservatives should be called "preservatives." Given the current state of politics, that would also be hilarious.

  8. It is one thing to apologize for the candidates because they will make no stand on the issues, it is another thing thing altogether to dismiss the issues and the values that are at stake in them. If we are asked to compromise on the offerings in presidential candidates, then we should at the same time reinforce the issues at stake and what is threatened if we refuse to do anything about them. Furthermore, if the president is not available for confronting the issues that need to be confronted, then alternative solutions should be promoted at the same time. There is a difference between a strategic retreat and surrender. A strategic retreat looks like compromise, but can be a way of reinforcing and insuring a promising victory. And always fixating on just one solution is another path to sure failure. Alternative solutions can skirt compromise. Compromise at one approach can be compensated by escalation at another.

    If there is such a thing as a true conservative, then why would a true conservative surrender the values that make up their point of view in the face of necessary compromise? If a true consevative candidate is somebody "who has never been elected to anything, who gets shut out of everything, who gets dismissed as too extreme" and is to be avoided, then what about the conservative voter? Is a true conservative voter somebody "who gets shut out of everything, who gets dismissed as too extreme"? Should they be asked to surrender the values and issues that a presidential candidate must in order to be acceptable?

    Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you have to quit wanting something in order to get what you want. That is an absurdity. We should be preparing now for an Obama victory and marshalling forces against those interests at other arenas besides the presidency. There is nothing to lose in doing this. If we lose the presidency, then we will have momentum for action at other levels. If we win the presidency, then we have momentum for what ought to be a sympathetic presidential response. If there is no sympathetic response then there is still hope for success. And if you don't want success, then what do you want?

  9. "It all comes down to goals. If you believe that...."

    At this point there is one goal and one goal only. That goal is the defeat of Obama. Everything else, at this point, is just political stuff and nonsense. The candidate who can defeat Obama is the candidate. All others can just Sit. Down.

  10. Linda Rivera11/1/12

    Michele Bachmann would have made a great president. There is no way the elites would ever have allowed her to become president.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Anonymous11/1/12

    Alan Keyes

  13. Well said, but this is exactly why we will have four more years of Obama. And after this may be another 4 years and another ...
    While conservatives are desperately searching for the perfect candidate they ruined all chances for all acceptable candidates to be elected. The mainstream media days and nights tells us how great Obama is, how big are his ideas, how hard he works to help people and how terrible republican destroy all his big plans. And what conservatives do? They spend all the time exposing all the dirt they can find in their candidates, but they are forgetting to say what is good in them. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry used conservative principles in practice and achieved great results. Why conservatives just barely mentioned their achievements? Mr. Gingrich runs on big ideas. Why not to discus them? Not to make them a centerpiece of the general campaign? No. We are afraid that not all ideas are excellent. It is a sad observation, but conservatives do not appreciate achievements, do not appreciate ideas, do not appreciate wisdom in any shape and form. They only appreciate adherence to their dogmas. And because of this Obama will win. Very sad.

  14. There is nothing inherently conservative or unconservative in the idea of Global Warming. It is a scientific problem. Some scientists came with a claim that our earth is warming up and that may be the human activity is the cause. It is not an easy task to prove or disprove such a claim so some scientists believe that there are enough evidence to support the claim, some believe that - not. Some even think that there is Global Cooling instead. Unfortunately for the science leftists sensed that the Global Warming is an excellent excuse to force people to work together under their leadership. So they started to promote the idea of Global Warming beyond the prove. Naturally conservatives resisted. And thus the war over Global Warming started. And for a conservative believing in Global Warming became an anathema. But, please, remember that Global Warming is a scientific problem and only scientists can prove or disprove that theory.So believing in Global Warming is not necessary a mark of a liberal. Only a way of approaching the problem could reveal a liberal.

  15. Again, there is nothing liberal in the idea that everybody has to pay for their medical care. Exactly vise-verse, it is a liberal idea that people can not have a medical insurance and still be treated for free in a hospital. To say truth, I do not see why is it unconstitutional to require that everybody has an insurance unless government required an insurance will be issued by government or a specific insurance company. The individual mandate, as it defined in Obamacare is, most likely, unconstitutional because it will lead to the government control on what citizen should or should not buy, but not the idea of individual mandate itself.


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