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Cloudy Fortunes for Conservatism

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By Jonah Goldberg
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Well, this wasn't the plan.

As pretty much everyone has noticed, the Republican race hasn't exactly followed any of the scripts laid out for it. Mitt Romney has been hacked apart like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." John McCain's fortunes -- which had been bouncing up and down like a printout of Dick Cheney's EKG -- have suddenly spiked northward after his victory in New Hampshire. Fred Thompson ran a brilliant "testing the waters" campaign from his front porch, but when he tried to walk on the water, he sank like a basset hound trying to swim. Pushing the poor beast under the waves was Mike Huckabee, whose down-home folksiness makes Thompson look like David Niven.

Huckabee's surprise surge in Iowa has made him this season's pitchfork populist, albeit a much nicer one -- sort of a Disneyland Pat Buchanan. Then there's Ron Paul. He started out as the designated wack job, then became so successful that the Des Moines Register had to cast Alan Keyes in the role of hopeless firebrand wingnut for a brief campaign cameo. And it's a sign of how poorly Rudy Giuliani -- once the indisputable front-runner -- has done that I'm now mentioning him only after Paul.

Of course, this could all change with the next contest.

Much of this chaos is attributable to the fact that this is a very flawed field, or at least one ill-suited for the times we're in. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then this year's Republican field looks downright dromedarian. This slate of candidates has everything a conservative designer could want -- foreign policy oomph, business acumen, Southern charm, Big Apple chutzpah, religious conviction, outsider zeal, even libertarian ardor -- but all so poorly distributed. As National Review put it in its editorial endorsement of Romney (I am undecided, for the record): "Each of the men running for the Republican nomination has strengths, and none has everything -- all the traits, all the positions -- we are looking for."

But conservatives should contemplate the possibility that the fault lies less in the stars -- or the candidates -- than in ourselves. Conservatism, quite simply, is a mess these days. Conservative attitudes are changing. Or, more accurately, the attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives are changing.

The most cited data to prove this point come from the Pew Political Typology survey. By 2005, it had found that so many self-described conservatives were in favor of government activism that they had to come up with a name for them. "Running-dog liberals" apparently seemed too pejorative, so the survey went with "pro-government conservatives," a term that might have caused Ronald Reagan to spontaneously combust. This group makes up just under 10 percent of registered voters and something like a third of the Republican coalition. Ninety-four percent of pro-government conservatives favored raising the minimum wage, as did 79 percent of self-described social conservatives. Eight out of 10 pro-government conservatives believe that the government should do more to help the poor and slightly more than that distrust big corporations.

There's more evidence elsewhere. As former Bush speechwriter David Frum documents in his new book, "Comeback," income taxes are no longer a terribly serious concern among conservative voters. Young Christian conservatives and others are increasingly eager to bring a faith-based activism to government. As the conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru recently noted in Time, younger evangelicals are more likely to oppose abortion than their parents were, but they are also more likely to look kindly on government-run anti-poverty programs and environmental protection. Even President Bush (in)famously proclaimed in 2003 that "when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

This is a far cry from the days when Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," and vowed to "curb the size and influence of the federal establishment."

Today the American public seems deeply schizophrenic: It hates the government -- Washington, Congress and public institutions are more unpopular than at any time since Watergate -- but it wants more of it. Conservative arguments about limited government have little purchase among independents and swing voters. This is a keen problem for a candidate like Romney, because it forces him to vacillate between his credible competence message -- "I can make government work" -- and his strategic need to fill the "Reaganite" space left vacant by former senator George Allen's failure to seize it and Thompson's inability to get anyone to notice that he occupies it. Worse, the conservatives who want activist government want it to have a populist-Christian tinge, and that's a pitch that neither McCain nor Giuliani nor Thompson nor Romney can sell.

Many of the younger conservative policy mavens and intellectuals have also become steadily less enamored of free markets and limited government. Post columnist Michael Gerson, formerly Bush's chief speechwriter, has crafted a whole doctrine of "heroic conservatism" intended to beat back the right's supposed death-embrace with small government and laissez-faire economics. He relentlessly calls for moral crusade to become the animating spirit of the right. But he's hardly alone. "Crunchy conservatism," the brainchild of Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, is also a cri de coeur against mainstream conservatism. And both of these derive from the kind of thinking that led George W. Bush to insist in 2000 that he was a "different kind of Republican" because he was a "compassionate conservative" -- a political program that apparently measures compassion by how much money the government spends on education, marriage counseling and the like.

The most revealing development of the campaign so far has to be Huckabee's success at displacing Thompson as the candidate of the socially conservative South. Thompson's failure to translate the immense excitement about his pre-candidacy into anything better than also-ran status is largely attributable to a lackluster campaign effort. But there's at least something symbolic about the fact that Huckabee has become, in the words of Commentary's John Podhoretz, "the socially conservative Southern pro-life candidate with a silver tongue and a pleasingly low-key affect."


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