Redefining Conservative Consistency

Listening to the pundits, you would think that fiscal conservatives and social conservatives never commingle. The passive listener or viewer may believe that all born again Christians are, by definition, social conservatives. Wrong. If one answers that the most important issue facing the economy is less government or the economy, then that voter is lumped and labeled as a fiscal conservative.

But there is a blurry line between voters' beliefs and the candidates for whom they are voting.

Ron Paul, for example, advances a foreign policy more aligned with George Washington's 'steer clear of foreign entanglements' philosophy. Contrast his non-interventionist view with the more muscular (or put another way, less restrained) foreign policy of Rick Santorum: "[Y]ou [Iran] either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors, or we will degrade those facilities through air strikes."

Regarding the economy, all Republicans want less federal government, and raising taxes is a non-starter. However revising the tax code to spur economic growth is appropriately fair game. Newt Gingrich would lower the corporate tax rate, and eliminate capital-gains taxes and taxes on the assets of the deceased. Sounds conservative, right? Sure, except when one ponders the possible deficits that would accrue because of the revenue shortfall. Gingrich argues that his plan would accelerate economic growth (and therefore the federal tax coffers). Some economists disagree.

The point here is not to quibble with the merits of these proposals, but to suggest that the Republican party is in flux. Names like Baker, Brooke, Case, Chafee, Javits, Kassebaum, Packwood and Weicker are GOP trivia questions. They were advocates for free speech and, yes, at times, even abortion rights.

Today's Republicans extol the virtues of freedom, as they simultaneously and occasionally promote "there ought to be a law"-ism. Note, for example, the ostensible philosophical contradictions within Rick Santorum's campaign website:

  • Spur innovation in America by increasing the Research & Development Tax Credit from 14% to 20% and make it permanent
  • Eliminate all agriculture and energy subsidies within four years letting the markets work, eliminate resources for job killing radical regulatory approaches at the EPA and refocus its mission on safe and clean water and air and commonsense conservation, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and support adoption, reduce funding for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for extreme positions undermining economic freedom, eliminate funding for implementation of ObamaCare, and eliminate funding for United Nations organizations that undermine America's interests
  • Pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution capping government spending at 18% of GDP

The belief that government should do less, except when it should do more, is arguably one reason why the Republican electorate is ambivalent about the current GOP field. They can agree that President Obama has overreached, but they disagree on how and when the next chief executive should reach, legislate and regulate. On some issues, like abortion, regulations are needed. On the budget, a constitutional amendment is necessary.

The Democrats' ideological incoherence also deserves scrutiny -- on Afghanistan, deficit reduction and tax simplification, to name but three issues.

No one claims that the electorate demands philosophical consistency. But there is comfort in consistency, which may explain Ron Paul's devoted appeal, especially among younger voters who have not yet codified their political views. His 'leave me alone' creed (to smoke marijuana, to thrive as an entrepreneur, to ensure that I do not go to war abroad) satisfies more than libertarian impulses. It assures them, and us, that not all politicians have their finger in the wind, seeking to follow our own sometimes inconsistent whims.

The percolating 'Anybody But Romney' movement may be less a product of his flavor of conservatism (that is, if he is, or how much), and more an artifact of his ideological pragmatism. He has been described as "the guy who looks like everyone who ever fired your dad."

Ouch. From the left, he is a patrician. From the right, he is unprincipled.

Do Republicans prefer consistency -- or a candidate who aligns with their own inconsistencies?

Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.