What Is Political Conservatism? Competing Brands From Ron Paul to Rick Perry to Mitt Romney


Regardless of the results of the New Hampshire GOP primary, the anti-Romney movement in the Republican Party appears intent on flexing its conservative muscle in the upcoming South Carolina primary. Over $6 million in Super Pac advertising has been purchased by supporters of Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) in an attempt to discredit the conservative claims of Romney’s candidacy.

Historically, political conservatism does not necessarily focus on any particular political position or issue. In fact, most conservative traditionalists disagree with one another over a number of issues including (but not limited to) abortion, stem cell research, capital punishment, the environment, and war.

Intellectual traditionalist conservatism tends to focus on the core beliefs of the importance of family, favoring small or limited government, a strong national defense, and free enterprise. 

The devil is in the details when anyone attempts to place their conservative badge of honor on public display.

Yet this race is truly unique. Traditionally, the conservative blemishes of a GOP candidate are not addressed until the primary race begins. Rarely has a Republican field cannibalized its own with such a lack of regard for the future.

Whether Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) opposition to national defense interests, Perry’s support for education of illegal immigrants, Rick Santorum’s role in expanding Medicare prescription drugs, Gingrich’s prior stance on health care reform, or Romney’s multiple reversals of positions, this GOP field has clearly identified that none could pass a strict conservatism test.

Interestingly, state by state polling among GOP voters doesn’t place a candidate’s conservative approval rating among the top attributes needed to attract their support. While the respective order of priorities does vary, job creation, electability, and deficit reduction remain the three central issues of concern. Among those, for GOP voters who identify themselves as Tea Party members or supporters, electability trumps sharing their specific conservative values.

Op-ed writers from across the country have offered up their analysis regarding the candidates fight to discredit their fellow conservatives’ credentials. Their answers range from the intellectual high ground to the political low ground – negative advertising can generate a big bang for the buck.

Or perhaps the debate to define political conservatism is an admission by several candidates that they do not possess a presidential campaign agenda capable of attracting support to their respective cause.

So let me ask you again, will defining political conservatism cost the GOP the White House in 2012?

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore