How far to the right will U.S. conservatives go?

Conservatives are split over how to carry out their mission—and how to deal with a resurgent President

Between wrong and right

Alex Brandon/AP

Eleven thousand conservatives gathered in a Washington hotel last week to rally, strategize and audition wannabe presidential candidates. The halls at the Conservative Political Action Conference were packed with activists, radio hosts, Tea Partiers in colonial regalia—and thick with giddy disbelief. Speaker after speaker reminded the crowd that only two years ago, in the wake of Obama-mania, pundits predicted Democratic majorities as far as the eye could see. Or, as Grover Norquist, head of the Americans for Tax Reform told the audience, “It’s tough to remember two years ago, how dark it looked for liberty!”

Now the House of Representatives is theirs, control of the U.S. Senate is within reach in 2012, and the White House looks vulnerable too. They’ve made spending cuts the topic of the day. “Conservatives are excited,” conference organizer and outgoing head of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, said in an interview, adding that November’s mid-term election “represented not only a partisan victory but one of the strongest ideological victories in American history.”

But beneath the triumphalism ran an undercurrent of anxiety. “Are we going to let Washington co-opt the Tea Party?” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell asked, summing up the fear in the room. The crowd roared “No!” and the newly elected lawmakers concurred. “A lot of us freshmen don’t really have a lot of knowledge about the ways of Washington—and frankly, we don’t really care,” declared Rep. Kristi Noem, a newbie from South Dakota.

Click here for the full interview with David Keene

But Republicans are at a crossroads—not sure how far to the right they want to go, and who will lead them there. Freshman Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party-backed fiscal conservative whom the Republican establishment had opposed in the primary, poured a little cold water on the self-congratulation. He told the conference that congressional Republicans have so far failed to present a credible plan to achieve the balanced budget they campaigned on. While they are calling for deeper cuts to domestic spending than President Barack Obama set out in his US$3.7-trillion 2012 budget proposal on Monday, Republicans have not yet taken the politically risky step of proposing cuts to the items that make up the bulk of the federal budget: military spending and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. “If you don’t, you are a Big Government conservative,” Rand said.

And in the Republican presidential field, the contenders seem to offer a measure of ideological purity or plausible electability, but not necessarily enough of both. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman—and father of Rand Paul—won the conference’s presidential straw poll of activists, but is not a front-runner in the outside world. It took Donald Trump, the bombastic real estate developer and reality TV star who is flirting with a presidential run, to tell the faithful flock, to a mixed chorus of boos and cheers: “I like Ron Paul, I think he is a good guy, but honestly he just has zero chance of getting elected.” As for the seriousness of a potential Trump bid, organizer Keene dismissed him as “an entertainer,” but noted, “if you’ve got his money and his mouth, and you get up there, someone will take you seriously.”

Polls this week suggest that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who ran a respectable campaign in 2008, is the actual front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But he carries the burden of having passed universal health care in his state, which resembles the plan Obama passed nationally, and which Republicans have vowed to repeal. “Personally, I don’t want Romney. He’s too squishy, too moderate and wishy-washy,” said conference attendee Phil Jennerjahn, a 44-year-old actor who ran for Congress in Los Angeles. He prefers Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “He’s very tough, a straight-shooter, a cowboy. He’s a real man—our current president is a little effeminate.”

But other potential candidates, such as the governor of Indiana and former Bush budget director Mitch Daniels, made the case for welcoming more moderates into the party in order to win. “We have learned in Indiana that big change requires big majorities,” he said. “We will need people who never tune in to [conservative talk shows], who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter.” Daniels already offended some social conservatives with an earlier declaration that in order to fix the nation’s finances, “the next president would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.”

Between wrong and right

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Daniels’ pragmatic message resonated with fiscal conservatives. “The conservative movement is in limbo. One half of the party knows which direction it wants to go, and the other is not sure. At this point in time, it’s important for us to get on the same path,” said Jordan Harris, a 21-year-old Kentucky native and economics student at Pennsylvania State University who backs Daniels. “He may not be the most articulate person, but in terms of governing, he has proved himself more than others.”

Like others, Harris said he regretted the divisions within the party that threaten its momentum heading into 2012. Last month, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a firebrand Republican who chairs the so-called Tea Party Caucus in the House, gave a televised response to Obama’s annual State of the Union speech that was separate from the official Republican response. (She told the conservative conference: “We have to win a conservative Senate, not just a Republican Senate.”) In another display of division, some activist groups boycotted the conference when a pro-gay-rights Republican group was invited; others objected to the invitation of a Muslim group. Former George W. Bush defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, accepting a Defender of the Constitution award from former vice-president Dick Cheney, was booed by many in the crowd who oppose the cost of America’s wars. “Isolationism is a luxury America and the world cannot afford,” he responded.

Another unsettled question for conservatives is how closely to work with Obama to pass legislation. Giving him legislative victories will help his re-election—but obstruct too much and risk being seen as the “do-nothing” Congress. McConnell warned against allowing the President to claim the political centre. “We won’t let the people who spent the last two years trying to turn this country into France walk away from their record!” he said. But Harris hoped Republicans and Obama would find common ground on reforming the tax code, reducing government regulation, and passing pending trade agreements. “The American people still want us to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, Obama is looking less vulnerable than he did a few months ago. According to surveys in nine battleground states conducted by Public Policy Polling since the November election, if Obama stood for re-election today against one of the current Republican front-runners, the President would almost certainly win the same number of electoral votes he did in 2008, if not more. Obama won these swing states by an average of seven points in 2008. The polls suggest Romney trails Obama by an average of six points in same places. Other top-tier candidates trail even more: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee by eight points, former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 12, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin lags by 16 points. If Republicans want to beat Obama, the pollsters concluded, “They need a much stronger candidate to emerge.”

For now, conservatives have much to celebrate. The question is how long the party can last. LUIZA CH. SAVAGE




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How far to the right will U.S. conservatives go?

  1. I hope we go so far that liberty regains that wich was lost from the 60's to the 90's.

    • A very stirring sentence. Now what does that actually mean? Segregation? McCarthy? Bringing back the V8 engine?

      Specifics!

      • Do you really want to speculate on the desires of someone who calls himself 'whiteylawful'?

    • Funny to watch the parasites who principally read this left wing rag get out in droves to dump on the 'hosts' who have been carrying them for far too long. Time to get back to these people being responsible and acocuntable for their own actions. Government workers living large at the expense of Joe Average has to stop. Also the intrusion of government must be severly curtailed. Imagine, parasites that have to earn their own living. Now ain't that a beautiful thought.

      • "…and now for Eastern Europe's favourite cartoon, Worker & Parasite!"
        –Krusty the Clown

  2. How prevalent were these predictions of Democractic majorities "as far as the eye can see"? Certainly predictions for two terms seemed reasonable (as they do today), but what led people to think there would be such a long term shift?

    • Well, who's to say the Republicans will keep their majority either? The US electorate seems fed up with both parties and the swing back and forth will continue ad nauseum.

  3. The Republican Party is in such disarray right now, I would be surprised if they can put together any sort of coherent policy. If a more moderate Republican gets the nod next year, I fully would expect that the Tea Party will put forward an independent candidate, leading to a 1992 style situation where the right vote gets split and Obama cruising to an easy victory. By a similar token, I imagine the house and senate could go the Democrats way if the Republicans remain disorganized. They only won the house last year due to the general cautiousness of the Democrats, and if looks like the Republicans are not doing a better job, it won't win them any support.

    • It was the Tea Party, not old-establishment Republicans, which proved its willingness to support primary winners irrespective of how well they fit the TP agenda. A TP/GOP split is probably wishful thinking.

    • If you have looked at Obama's budget you will realize that there is already a Republican in the White House.

  4. Former George W. Bush defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, accepting a Defender of the Constitution award from former vice-president Dick Cheney, was booed by many in the crowd who oppose the cost of America's wars. “Isolationism is a luxury America and the world cannot afford,” he responded.

    I suspect that many Americans don't agree with the black-white world view that Rumsfeld seems to perceive.

  5. I do wish we'd disassociated the terms conservative from right wing. They've become mutually exclusive.
    This Tea Party brand is dubbed as being radical than it is conservative.
    Beyond that I hope some more pragmatic thinking prevails before the next elections. If you need to slander someone's argument instead of making a case for you're own, how do you propose to govern?

  6. Join the GOP in the race to the bottom. They won't be satisfied until the whole country is Dogpatch with Lil Abner as the leader in the oligarch's back pocket.

    BTW, Romney won't win because of healthcare, he won't win because he's a Morman and not "Christian" enough for the bible toters.

    Look at the "contenders" for the nomination. A sorrier bunch of biblebeaters, ignorance mongers, gay bashers, bigots and outright whackos have never before been seen on the US National stage, except for maybe last year's CPAC meeting.

    • "Look at the 'contenders' for the nomination. A sorrier bunch of biblebeaters, ignorance mongers, gay bashers, bigots and outright whackos have never before been seen on the US National stage, except for maybe last year's CPAC meeting."

      And American still has Joe Biden as VP…

  7. If fiscal conservatives fail to take over governance in the short term, fiscal REALITY will in the medium term.

  8. Conservatives in the USA don't need the GOP in power, Obama is just as happy to forward with the banker's agenda. He appointed the most right wing of the Clintonomics gang and has entrenched all the conditions for debt deflation and continuing depression. In short, he sold his constituency to his campaign backers. Like any politician does. Obamacare basically gave (by force) the medical insurance giants a few million more clients to suck the blood out of. The tax "compromise" for the wealthiest will likely be extended again in 2012. And all of these TRILLIONS of $ (plus those TARP funds, remember those?), none of it is going to the American economy. It is all being invested overseas, wrecking more country's economies with neoliberal mayhem and creating foreign exchange crises the likes of which we have only started to understand.

    So forget about it. America is done for. American politics isn't even worth the effort to think about (apologies to Luiza).

    What we need now is Keyne's "evisceration of the rentier." The Finance Insurance and Real Estate sector need to have their throats slashed, and let the blood they have sucked out of the economy soak back into the American dirt.

    • Nice to see there are still a few Socreds out there.

  9. White House organized protests against state governments will drive the voting public further to the right, the people have figured out that the limousine liberals, like $100,000/year teachers, are only in it for themselves.

    The voting public doesn't like being held hostage by leftist union thugs in the Democrat party, they will be looking to the Republicans to do exactly what the Governor in Wisconsin is doing, the public will drive that party to the 'right'.

    Big government Republicans who 'work with' socialists/progressives will be out, rational adults will have to take over that party and provide an alternative to ruinous big gov't policies that only benefit rich friends of the Democrats.

    • “limousine liberal” is a handy PR tag line, but I challenge you to find any public school board that is paying its teachers 100K/year.

      In Canada, in northern Alberta, I’ve heard teachers can make in the range of 85K because there is such high demand and low supply, but that is an unusual situation.

      In Ontario, there is a list of all public sector employees who make 100K+. There are some university professors, but no public school teachers.

      If you think there are public sector teacher’s out there making 100K/year you are wrong.

  10. "He's a real man—our current president is a little effeminate”

    What is with Republicans' obsession with "manliness?" How the hell is Obama effeminate? Because he doesn't wear a cowboy hat? And how does feminine still = weak in the 21st century?

    Canadian conservatism may have some issues, but at least for most conservatives it's not steeped in misogyny and hate like its American counterpart.

  11. The tea party is a reaction to the recession, which it is unlikely to outlast by much. I question whether it will have much of a permanent impact on the GOP or on American politics in general. It gets headlines largely because Democrat-leaning columnists have a long history of pissing their pants about barbarians at the gates, while Republicans find it convenient to rebrand themselves after 8 years of George W. Bush.

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