Who's a real conservative? It's all relative.

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, in a column about how conservatives are cannibalizing the likes of Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah, I had the nerve to describe Murkowski, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, as a "faithful conservative."

"Dear Mr. Milbank," began an e-mail from Myron Ebell, a climate-change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Your column today would be more convincing if its broad assertions had some connection to facts."

This was evidently not a fan letter. "You call Senator Murkowski 'a faithful conservative.' You must be thinking of her father. By most measures, she is the most liberal . . . Republican Senator west of Maine and considerably to the left of most of her constituents. I suggest you check her American Conservative Union ratings over the past few years."

I took Ebell up on his challenge. What I found was astonishing -- although not in the way he had supposed. Comparing the ACU ratings of Murkowski and Bennett with those of other Republicans in the House and Senate going back to 1971 (the first year in the ACU online ratings archive), I discovered that if conservatives were to employ the purity standards they applied to Murkowski and Bennett, they would have rejected many, if not most, of the leading Republican lawmakers of the past 40 years.

Murkowski, according to the ACU, has a lifetime conservative rating of 70.2 percent. Bennett's rating is 83.6 percent. To see who would fail the Murkowski purity standard and the more stringent Bennett purity standard, I used lifetime ratings for those who served after 1995 (when lifetime ratings first appear in the ACU archive) and the last year in office for the rest. (Requests for assistance from the ACU went unanswered.)

President Gerald Ford, Republican leader in the House from 1965 to 1973? You're outta here! He rated 67 percent in 1973 -- failing both the Murkowski and the Bennett tests.

Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee and longtime Senate Republican leader? Gone! He rated only 82 percent, flunking the Bennett test.

Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, Senate Republican leader from 1977 to 1985, would also be excommunicated with a score identical to Dole's. And check out Baker's predecessor as Senate Republican leader, Pennsylvania's Hugh Scott. ACU rating in 1976: 29 percent, failing both the Murkowski and Bennett standards by a mile.

The three men who between 1969 and 1995 served as Republican whips in the Senate, the number two leadership position, would all be purged under the Bennett test: Alan Simpson (Wyoming) had a 78 percent lifetime rating, Ted Stevens (Alaska) rated 64 percent lifetime, and Robert Griffin (Michigan) scored 83 percent in his last year.

In today's House, where 95 percent and above is the new normal, longtime Republican leader Bob Michel (84 percent) and his predecessor, John Rhodes of Arizona (53 percent) would have reason to worry.

It's true, as Ebell said, that Murkowski had a slightly more liberal record in the past few years (in the high 60s on the scale) and that her father was a bit more conservative (83 percent). But she's more conservative than the late Stevens; his constituents tolerated his "liberalism" for 40 years.

Among those past senators who would be vulnerable to a purge in today's Republican Party: Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas (56 percent), Al D'Amato of New York (57 percent), Slade Gorton of Washington (70 percent), Mike DeWine of Ohio (79.8 percent), Gordon Smith of Oregon (68.8 percent), John Warner of Virginia (79.2 percent), Pete Domenici of New Mexico (74.1 percent), Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado (55 percent), John Heinz of Pennsylvania (48 percent) and Bill Cohen of Maine (48 percent).

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