Who is the true conservative?
By William C. Whitbeck
In July of 1952, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois stood before the Republican Convention as a committed conservative. He regarded big government as the road to tyranny and had allied himself with a fellow conservative, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, against the establishment candidate for the Republican nomination, Dwight Eisenhower.
When Dirksen launched into his nominating speech for Taft, he turned his attention to Thomas Dewey, twice the losing Republican candidate for President and now seated with the New York delegation as an Eisenhower floor lieutenant. Dirksen extended a long, bony finger toward Dewey and bellowed, “We followed you before, and you took us down the path to defeat!”
It did no good. In the last true floor fight at a Republican convention in the second half of the twentieth century, Eisenhower defeated Taft and went on to trounce Adlai Stevenson, not once but twice, for the presidency. And, the process of governing being what it is, as Dirksen ascended the leadership ladder in the Senate, he gradually entered into a marriage of convenience with the administration. Indeed, Dirksen’s philosophical journey continued throughout the Kennedy/Johnson years when, as one author put it, he “came to embrace the power of the presidential office.”
Was Dirksen a true conservative or was he a just a Republican in name only? There is no doubt that in his long congressional career, Dirksen became a man of Washington. But his roots were in small town Illinois. Despite his twists and turns over the years, he never lost track of his origins. In the exquisite gradations of liberal to conservative, he was of the center/right, in action as well as in name.
With Dirksen in mind, how can we categorize the four remaining contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination? Ron Paul is, well, Ron Paul, an isolationist libertarian so radical in his foreign policy views as to be off any conventional grid. Newt Gingrich classifies himself as a man of big ideas, which usually connotes big expenditures and ballooning deficits. George Will, commenting on Gingrich’s “unsurprising descent into sinister radicalism,” says that Gingrich is not merely the least conservative candidate, “he is thoroughly anticonservative.”
Senator Rick Santorum is no radical. But if there is a single thread that runs through modern conservatism it is a distrust—indeed a fear—of big, intrusive government. Dirksen articulated this profound antipathy in the 1950s and today it remains alive and well in conservative circles. Unfortunately, Senator Santorum has a record in Congress that reveals an occasional unsettling belief in the power of governmental programs, large and small, to positively affect American behavior and culture. Coupled with some of his votes on expenditures and the deficit, this may qualify him as something of a big government conservative. To many on the right, this is an absolute, and very disturbing, contradiction in terms.
When viewed through the prism of belief in limited government, it is Mitt Romney who is both the last man standing and the actual conservative. With respect to the means of actually reducing the government—balancing the budget, reversing the steady accumulation of debt, returning the entitlement programs to some level of fiscal sanity, moving toward energy sufficiency, and generally reducing the size and span of control of the federal government, particularly as that leviathan impinges on individual liberty and matters of conscience—Romney touches all the bases in the limited government ballpark.
Even when considering his record in Massachusetts—a Republican governor in a very liberal, very Democratic state—there is little about Romney’s positions in this campaign that suggests that he is a big government conservative. He is of the center/right and most certainly a man who acts upon his beliefs. If he becomes President, I suspect that he will not only talk of limited government, he will use the power of the presidential office to act upon this core principle.
I worked for Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, in Lansing, Washington, and Detroit in various capacities from 1967 to 1972, when he was Governor of Michigan and Secretary of the Department of Housing & Urban Development.