When GOP candidates and sympathizers use the word conservative, what are they talking about? I wonder about it because I do not relate to anything that follows that word in contemporary usage as being conservative. Candidates Romney, Gingrich and Santorum each gave the word necessary lip service at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Romney went so far as to declare himself a “severely conservative governor” and used the word conservative more than 20 times in a 25 minute speech. That is hardly a conservative way of using any word.
Consider the etymology of the word. Conservative appeared as a name for a British political faction in 1831, replacing the 150-year-old word Tory, which had become a pejorative term. However, conservatism is not a political system as American politicians imply. Instead, it is a shared preference for things that are established, such as institutions and customs, and a desire to preserve them. But that’s etymology for you.
Romney made the distinction that conservatives are a political faction. He told his CPAC audience that he was “the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, to never work a day in Washington. I don’t have old scores to settle or decades of cloakroom deals to defend. As conservatives, you learn to be skeptical of this city and its politicians, and right you are.”
Jimmy Carter said much the same thing and became an outsider elected president. Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as a Washington outsider. Romney says the words conservative and outsider, but he does not appear to be either.
Reagan led a conservative crusade that began with the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Whether or not Reagan would be considered a conservative by today’s Republican standards is debatable, as is Goldwater’s conservatism. The problem is that in contemporary usage, the word conservative seems to require modifiers, such as extreme or arch. Or conservative requires being associated with a name, such as Reagan or Goldwater.
Perhaps the GOP is looking for an apocalyptic Nixon conservative.
In the competition for any Republican candidate to be seen as the most conservative, credentialed or otherwise, the GOP presidential candidates at CPAC were all overshadowed by Fox News commentator Sarah Palin.
“We must stand as conservatives,” Palin stirred the crowd. “For the sake of our party, we must stand united with whoever our nominee is.” Although she has not publically endorsed a candidate, she has told her employer that she will endorse Newt Gingrich, a flamboyant Harding conservative.
An accomplished cheerleader, Ms. Palin drew a standing ovation when she declared, “This time next year we will have a true conservative in the Oval Office.” If President Obama is reelected and the etymological distinction of conservative prevails, such as a shared a preference for established things and a desire to preserve them, she will be correct.
Real Conservatism needs no modifier.