Countdown to Iowa: Ron Paul or the GOP, what do conservatives want?

What kind of conservatism do Republican voters want? Is the GOP even conservative anymore? Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., December 27, 2011 — As the campaign season hurtles towards Iowa and the only polls that matter, the GOP race is still wide open. It’s less wide open than it was six months ago, but Romney still hasn’t cemented his position as the front runner, Gingrich is faltering as the non-Romney du jour, and Ron Paul, who well into the fall was just a cause of indigestion, has finally started to cause serious incontinence in the ranks of the GOP establishment.

So the question is, what do conservatives and Republicans really want? How much overlap is there between the two?

Paul’s supporters label as “neoconservative” just about every non-Democrat who disagrees with them. The term “neoconservative” is a bit more precise than that. Neoconservatism is a movement created by former liberals. It was originally a reaction to other liberals who hewed to a pro-Soviet position, rooted in disgust at liberal tolerance of Stalinism. By the 1970s it had become a general preference for a muscular American foreign policy designed to spread American ideals and democracy around the world. Jeanne Kirkpatarick, Paul Wolfowitz, and Democrats like Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson were among its strongest political voices.

Neoconservative ideas aren’t rooted in Libertarianism. Many neoconservatives have been social liberals, favoring heavy welfare-state policies and an activist federal government. The defining feature of neoconservatives is their support of military adventures designed to expand American power and political institutions abroad.

Neoconservatism has become a GOP orthodoxy. From the 1970s, Republicans have seen themselves as pro military and opposed to policies of appeasement. Republicans in Congress are generally opposed to cuts in military spending, and they view departure from Iraq and Afghanistan as a retreat and an abandonment of everything Americans fought and died for there.

Paul’s supporters are wrong to label everyone who disagrees with them as “neoconservative,” but they’re absolutely correct that to the neoconservatives in the GOP, Paul is absolutely unacceptable, just as neoconservatism is absolutely unacceptable to Ron Paul.

If Paul’s foreign policy isn’t neoconservative, and hence, by GOP standards, isn’t conservative at all, his stances on economic issues are nothing but conservative.  In many ways, though, the GOP has moved away from conservatism. Paul’s views on the Fed and monetary policy are seen as old-fashioned, a bit embarrassing, sort of like a father who insists on wearing coats and ties to baseball games and who stands when a lady enters the room. He’s utterly un-cool.

There’s no doubt at all that the GOP establishment would prefer as its candidate a social and economic liberal with muscular (neoconservative) foreign policy views over an economic conservative social libertarian with non-interventionist views. Foreign policy trumps domestic issues.

And yet, what really matters to most of us are domestic concerns. Unemployment, the deficit, the threat to pension programs, and the all-too-real possibility of a second recession are what really matter. They can’t be divorced from foreign policy, but maintaining American empire isn’t really an enterprise that moves most Americans in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times.

If many Republicans have adopted a neoconservative view of foreign affairs, they’re also conservatives on domestic issues. Mitt Romney is right, as far as they’re concerned, on foreign policy, but he may be too “Scoop Jackson” for their tastes. That’s probably an unfair assessment of Romney, who, unlike President Obama, clearly understands that the states can and should experiment with social policy in ways the federal government should not. If Romneycare is much like Obamacare, it’s different in two fundamental ways: It is a state program, not federal; and most people who have to live with it wanted it.

The fact remains that Paul appeals much more to economic conservatives than Romney does, more than do any of the other GOP contenders. If Paul and Huntsman are often mentioned admiringly in the same breath by some people, it’s because of their foreign policy views. They aren’t on the same economic page.

Neoconservatism and economic conservatism aren’t the only conservatisms at play here. The most divisive of them all is social conservatism, and here’s where both Romney and Paul make conservatives nervous. Neither has been a reliable and forceful proponent of stopping same-sex marriage by a constitutional amendment, nor of choosing federal and Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s from this branch of conservatism that Santorum and Bachmann hope to take off among voters.

None of the GOP field (including Paul) is reliably conservative in every dimension of conservatism. “Conservative” itself may be an incoherent description of any candidate. But which dimensions of conservatism are most important to the GOP electorate? People who are social conservatives will accept almost anyone but Romney (his religion doesn’t go over well with them, either), neoconservatives, anyone but Paul and Huntsman (whom I mention only in order not to offend his supporters, most of whom are named “Huntsman”). Economic conservatives (if that’s what we can call small-government deficit hawks who want to keep taxes down) can find things to like in several candidates, though Paul is probably closer to their center of gravity.

Whoever wins the Iowa caucuses won’t have won the endorsement of the Republican base. The campaign will remain open but it will narrow, weeding out anyone who doesn’t do well in at least one of the Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina trio. Then we’ll see what kind of conservatism matters most to Republicans. Until it learns to reconcile them, the GOP will probably never thrive.

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. His ideal candidate would be composed of two parts Paul, one part Romney, one part Gingrich, and one part Reagan. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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