February 17, 2006

Conflating Conservative with Republican

Marc Comtois

Jonah Goldberg offers a reminder that Republicans and conservative is not the same thing.

Republicans and conservatives aren't the same thing. This distinction seems lost on lots of people, including cable television bark-show bookers and partisan Democrats and Republicans alike. To a principled conservative, it is bad news when the Democrats lurch to the left, even if it makes the Democrats less likely to win elections. Why? Because when the Democrats move left, so do the Republicans.

In American politics, when one party moves left or right, the political center of gravity moves that way too. Bill Clinton, whatever his flaws, moved his party to the right. His triangulation infuriated Republicans because it is always vexing when someone steals your lunch. Democrats despise Bush's compassionate conservatism for similar reasons. A Republican president promising to "leave no child behind" annoys Democrats as much as Clinton's denouncing of Sista Soulja irked Republicans. When the Bush presidency is over, it will be more obvious in hindsight how much he moved the GOP to the left by making the nanny state bipartisan.

It all boils down to what matters to you most. As a conservative, the extent I root for the GOP depends entirely on how successful it is in moving the political climate of the country toward fiscal restraint, limited government, and cultural decency. Single-issue voters understand this point best: Pro-lifers would dearly love to break the GOP monopoly on opposing abortion, just as abortion-rights supporters dream of the day when both parties are pro-choice. Many conservatives, including yours truly, would have agonized over a choice between a reliably pro-war Democrat and George W. Bush in 2004, particularly if judicial appointments weren't so important.

This is a point that Chafee supporting commenters (such as those commenting on this post) are either missing or understand well-enough to try to redefine "real" conservatism as whatever reflects Sen. Chafee's policy positions.

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The Chafee folks are clearly trying to redefine the (connotation of the) word "conservative" to mean far less than it currently does, because under its regular usage (or denotation), Senator Chafee clearly falls well outside of it. They figure that if they can trick enough self-described conservatives to vote for Chafee, that they might have a shot at winning in the GOP primary.

It reminds me of a saying by someone (who I can't recall) who coined the term "Defining Deviancy Down" to describe what liberals have been doing for the last forty years or so (with some success) to destigmatize what was once considered "bad" (out of wedlock birth, abortion, divorce, gambling, etc). The Chafee-ites are trying to "Define Conservatism Down."

Although "Republican" does not necessarily equate to "conservative," and the term "conservative" as applied to people, can mean different things to different people (much like the term "affirmative action," for instance), there are clearly certain positions on key issues that are "conservative" and there are those that are clearly not.

Note to Chafee: You aren't fooling anyone here.

Posted by: Will at February 18, 2006 3:53 AM