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Who are the real conservatives?

Last week I received a new television spot from the Rand Paul presidential campaign. Given that Paul is running as a Republican, it sounded very much like at attack on Democrats — and Republicans.

“No matter which party is in power, government and debt continue to grow,” Paul said to the camera. This is false, of course. For instance, when Jimmy Carter left office, the deficit was about the same as the debt he inherited from Jerry Ford. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, added 189 percent and two zeros to it. The first George Bush nearly doubled that and handed it off to Bill Clinton.

When Clinton left office, the Reagan deficit had been paid down dramatically, to about $6 billion, a relatively manageable debt in today’s terms. When Clinton’s successor George W. Bush left office, however, he handed off to Barack Obama an $11 trillion debt, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checker Politifact. Of course, Bush was saddled with the cost of two wars and a Wall Street meltdown (all of which he also handed off to Obama), something Clinton didn’t have to deal with (though he tried very hard but unsuccessfully in 1998 to start a war against Iraq).

But the more interesting thing about the Paul spot was its title: “A real conservative.”

I have no idea what that means.

In the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, Marcos knew that the U.S. government would give money to any government that was threatened by communism, so he started calling all his opponents communists. Soon everyone in the Philippines who opposed the dictatorship — which was most of the population — was a communist, at least according to the government. As a result, the term “communist” pretty much lost its meaning. That’s where we are in the United States when it comes to the term “conservative.”

In 1996 Barry Goldwater joked to Robert Dole, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you believe it?” To all but paleoconservatives, Goldwater was a conservative. He was critical of Jerry Falwell. Was Falwell or Goldwater the real conservative?

Jeb Bush has claimed that Donald Trump is not a real conservative. But then in June there were enough doubts among Republicans about Bush’s conservative credentials that the Christian Science Monitor ran an article titled “Is Jeb Bush a real conservative?” Five months earlier it was CNN: “Is Jeb Bush conservative enough?”

One of the things that began making it difficult to tell the real conservatives was the rise of litmus tests. A candidate can have a perfect conservative record but be wrong on immigration and that alone disqualifies him or her with the rightists.

Or a member of Congress who has an unbroken conservative voting record but once voted for a tax increase has a fatal flaw with large numbers of purists. There are people who prefer insolvency over taxation and others who prefer taxation over insolvency, and they both call themselves conservatives. That’s how it becomes difficult to identify the conservatives.

It’s as self-defeating as the liberal stance of the National Organization for Women in 1974, when Ella Grasso ran for governor of Connecticut. NOW refused to support her. She had a chance to be the first woman elected governor without first succeeding her husband in office, and she had a perfect record on women’s issues except for abortion, though Connecticut is the fourth most Catholic state in the nation.

I often wonder if some of those who call themselves conservatives look at the traditional and deeper meanings of conservatism rather than the transient issues. For instance, conservative thinker Russell Kirk once wrote, “First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: Human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics. … [T]he ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an old-fangled moral order.”

Of course, that kind of definition demands thought and nuance and tolerance for other conservatives.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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