Although the next presidential election is more than a year away, campaigning has already begun. With a liberal Democratic incumbent in the White House, Republican candidates are loudly touting their conservative credentials. The battles over which candidate is more conservative are heating up.
“I have fought against irresponsible spending while Governor [Tim] Pawlenty was leaving a multi-billion-dollar budget mess in Minnesota,” said GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, a member of the U.S. House from Minnesota. Although the Pawlenty campaign claimed there was “very little difference” between the two candidates’ positions, Bachmann’s press secretary countered that there was “very little difference between Governor Pawlenty’s past positions and Barack Obama’s positions on several critical issues facing Americans.” At the recent GOP debate in Iowa, Pawlenty and Bachmann went after each other with even more vigor. (Pawlenty seems to have gotten the worst of it and has since withdrawn from the race.)
But whether it is Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, or other announced candidates, such as Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Mitt Romney, the conservative rhetoric is still the same.
Because Republican candidates must appeal to the conservatism of Tea Party members, social conservatives, Christian conservatives, Reagan conservatives, et cetera, they will sometimes tailor their message to target a specific group. But their emphasis is always on how “conservative” they are.
The importance to Republicans give to being “more conservative” or “the most conservative,” overall or on some particular issue, is just the opposite of what Democrats do: they generally shun the “liberal” label. I don’t recall Democratic candidates in the last election disputing over who was “more liberal” or “the most liberal.”
But is being “more conservative” on some issue a good thing?
Conservatives support the welfare state. The largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was undertaken not by liberals, but by conservatives. The Republican version of health-care reform, known as the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, was introduced by the Republican House speaker, supported by the Republican leadership in the House and Senate, passed with overwhelming Republican support, and signed into law by a Republican president. Those were the same Republicans who campaigned in the 2010 election on how conservative they were.
And then there is the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a partnership between federal and state governments that was created in 1997 — thanks again to a Republican majority in Congress. It provides federally funded health insurance to children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid. When the program was up for reauthorization in 2007, it passed in the Senate by unanimous consent and in the House over the objections of only three Republicans. It was only when Obama the Democrat became president that some Republicans in Congress suddenly became more conservative and opposed the program.
In their pre-election “Pledge to America” in 2010, Republicans — who campaigned up to election day on how conservative they were — proposed to “support Medicare for seniors,” and “protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.” The Republicans even criticized Obamacare for cutting Medicare and forcing millions of seniors “off their current Medicare coverage.”
Conservatives also support that relic from the New Deal Social Security. They may talk about raising the retirement age, changing the cost-of-living adjustments, and reducing benefits, but they accept in principle that the government should have a Social Security program.
Conservatives support the regulatory state. It was a Republican president who gave us the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When was the last time a conservative called for abolishing those, or any other, regulatory agencies? Or even for slashing their budgets? The federal government regulates every conceivable facet of business and society. The Federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandates that “all faucet fixtures manufactured in the United States restrict maximum water flow at or below 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) at 80 pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure or 2.2 gpm at 60 psi.” The same act regulates the amount of water that toilets can flush. Conservatives sometimes complain about too much federal regulation, but as with their calls to eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse,” they are long on rhetoric and short on action. They may talk about reducing government regulations, but they accept in principle that the government should be a regulator.
Conservatives support the nanny state. It was a Republican president who signed into law the ultimate in nanny-state legislation — the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that mandates the phase out of incandescent light bulbs, beginning with the 100-watt bulb in 2012 and ending with the 40-watt bulb in 2014.
The worst part of the nanny state that conservatives support is the war on drugs. You know, the war that has failed to prevent drug abuse or reduce the demand for drugs while at the same time eroding civil liberties and unnecessarily swelling prison populations. Conservatives are the main proponents of federal drug laws, that is, of locking people up in cages for buying, selling, growing, processing, using, or possessing a plant.
Conservatives support the police state. We have Bush and the Republicans to thank for the tremendous expansion of the police state since 9/11. The USA PATRIOT Act is widely supported by conservatives. Earlier this year, 31 out of 40 Tea Party-supported candidates voted in the House of Representatives in favor of extending the PATRIOT Act. And where is the conservative opposition to the groping and fondling of the TSA? In the name of “national security,” conservatives will generally support any expansion of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the police state in general.
Conservatives support the warfare state. Perhaps the most troubling thing about conservatives is their support for war and militarism. Indeed, the very heart and soul of conservatism is war. Patriotism, Americanism, and being a real conservative are now equated with support for war, torture, empire, imperialism, and militarism. Earlier this year, conservatives gave one of the chief war criminals, Donald Rumsfeld, the “Defender of the Constitution Award” at their annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The presenter? None other than the notorious Dick Cheney. The major Republican candidates (except, of course, for Ron Paul) are all the same on one key issue — the warfare state. They all support war, killing more Muslims, the U.S. empire, the CIA, an interventionist foreign policy, and bloated military budgets.
Lamenting recently on his radio show that Republicans control only the House, the conservative Sean Hannity posits a solution to the country’s fiscal woes in a conservative Senate and a conservative president.
Let’s hope not.
The problem with American conservatism, as Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute has explained,
is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than risk losing one soul to heresy. It has never understood the idea of freedom as a self-ordering principle of society. It has never seen the state as the enemy of what conservatives purport to favor. It has always looked to presidential power as the saving grace of what is right and true about America.
Ronald Reagan’s claim that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism” is bogus. The two ideologies are poles apart. It would be more accurate to say that the very heart and soul of conservatism — given conservatives’ support for the welfare state, the regulatory state, the nanny state, the police state, and the warfare state — is not discernibly different from that of modern-day liberalism.
Which Republican candidate is more conservative? When it comes to the key issues of liberty, property, and peace, they (except, of course, for Ron Paul) are all statist and interventionist to the core.