Jennifer Rubin has an interesting blog post in her Right Turns column for the Washington Post. She tackles this idea of what it really means to be conservative, including whether the movement has been too quick to label issues as “conservative” even though they may not be.
It is also helpful in making policy decisions, sourcing candidates and determining legislative agendas to be clear about what is essential to conservatism and what is not. Republicans can adopt positions that are less or more conservative (there is nothing wrong with a little political expediency now and then), but they should be careful not to appropriate the conservative moniker to justify whatever it is they want to do or not do.
Conservatives’ faith in free markets, reasonable taxes, modest regulations and free trade are positions grounded in fundamental beliefs about the size and role of government (limited, there to protect its citizens’ rights and afford them safety from hostile powers). As a tactical matter that may require compromise ( e.g. accept revenue-generating tax reform), but the goal of a pro-growth tax code that eschews government favoritism of one industry or company over another is based on free-market principles. If a purported conservative wants to toss that aside (or opposition to defense sequestration or any other principle position), don’t be surprised when others question if he has any fixed beliefs.
She seems to argue (effectively) that conservatism should be viewed on a spectrum rather than through a bright line division between “conservative” or “liberal.” The more complicated positions held by many conservative candidates are obviously gay marriage and immigration. With both of those issues, conservative candidates seem to lose (badly) the youth and Hispanic vote respectively. Though she does not urge concession on those issues, Jennifer Rubin seeks to put them into context:
On the other hand, positions that many claim to be equally essential to conservatism simply are not. If marital infidelity and divorce aren’t part of any conservative national political agenda, gay marriage need not be. No tenant of modern conservatism obligates politicians to insist on undoing a social consensus on the expansion of marriage freely arrived at by voters.
Nor is there anything conservative about opposing immigration reform. Republicans may do so because they think it will benefit Democrats or because they are afraid their talk-show hosts will holler at them, but it is not a conservative position. Conservatives favor meritocracy, entrepreneurial energy and a flexible labor market. As students of history they know immigration is essential to keep replenishing American culture and society and to make good on the vision of the framers that America is based on democratic ideals, not ethnic or racial identity.
Republicans must be flexible in their approach to policies and responsive to their defeats. Throughout history, the commonly-held stereotypes of the parties were that Democrats supported positions of caring and passion towards the less-fortunate, while Republicans were pragmatic, reasonable, and responsible. (Many will argue those stereotypes, but they are, nonetheless, how many view the general distinctions of the parties. After all, there’s a reason why the following quote generally seems to ring true: “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”)