There is a growing trend among politicians and politicos to loosely throw around the term “fiscal-conservative” when describing themselves or a candidate. While this might seem fine and dandy, what’s troubling is the game they’re playing to make people think they are “true conservatives.” Since it would be virtually impossible to have any sort of “truth in advertising” rule for ideology, we have to just trust their word and verify it later. In most cases, however, what they really are is a good old-fashion moderate playing it right down the middle trying to have it both ways.
Why are some Republican pols afraid to call themselves moderates? Why do they play this game of being a “bifurcated conservative,” wanting to please both sides and have it both ways? I think part of it lies in that more often than not we hear the word conservative being used synonymously with Republican. The two words are not interchangeable. I’ve been to many gatherings & events where I hear things like “it’s great to be among conservatives” or “he/she is a good conservative,” and then when I look around I find myself slightly bewildered, wondering if someone redefined the term one day when I was absent. [Related on OCR: “Understanding the GOP’s Identity Crisis”]
I think part of the reason is that GOP leaders think it’s cool to be a called (or referred to as) a conservative, but when it comes down to the specifics and labeling, the word “fiscal” somehow always sneaks in. Somehow they think it makes them more palatable to a broader audience, or something like that. The practice is redolent of the Ohio Republican Party using “Tea Party Values” on mailers a few years back, without actually associating with the Tea Party.
I think it’s safe to say, too, that there isn’t any real disagreement that being fiscally conservative is a good value to champion. In fact, if you read talking points from Democrats and Republicans, you’ll see similar, ambiguous, and often colorful language about fiscal restraint, responsibility, and being good stewards with the taxpayers’ money. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and when you dig beneath the surface, you might find some sinister machinations.
The media also are to blame. All too quickly (perhaps gleefully) they lump all Republicans together as right-wing conservatives and usually describe Democrats with a certain degree of moderation and sensibility. But that’s a story for a whole different day.
The truth is that these politicians, many of whom are honorable and decent men and women, are just plain moderates. They are probably against raising taxes, want to reduce the size and scope of government, and remove regulatory impediments to economic growth, but they won’t take a public stand on abortion, family values, traditional marriage, or any issue remotely social. Sometimes they won’t even discuss them. In fact, when pressed on social issues, they sound more like Democrats than Republicans. So for them, the safest way to appeal to the Republican base is to cloak themselves as full-fledged conservatives. Imagine addressing a Republican gathering and coming right out and saying you’re a proud moderate or even socially liberal. That would indeed be a sight to see; many reading this now probably would label such a person as a liberal RINO (Republican in Name Only) and dump him. I would wager that today’s Ohio conservative voters in general are more inclined to vote for the real thing than someone who is basically Democrat-lite. [Related on OCR: “Has the Big Tent Become a Pole Barn?”]
Republican leaders who call themselves conservative need to realize that Ohio isn’t Burger King: you can’t have it your way. You’re either a conservative, a moderate, or a liberal. It’s the sum total of your value system and the azimuth of your moral compass that determines your ideological tilt. You can’t split the difference. You can’t be fiscally liberal and socially conservative with a dash of moderation. If you quack like a duck, you’re a duck, and being a political platypus is just downright disingenuous.
To be fair, we might add a category for small “L” libertarian Republicans, but I have yet to see any of them trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not (i.e., a fiscal libertarian. We know where they stand, and most are all too happy to openly debate the finer points of their policies into the wee hours of the morning.
Bottom line: it has always has been up to the Republican base to call out the non-conservatives for who they really are and expose them for what they really stand for. It is that same base that turns out to do the heavy lifting in every election and serve as the ideological core of the Republican Party.
So the next time you hear some Republican elected official or candidate describe himself solely as being a “fiscal conservative,” watch out. He or she is trying to be a “bifurcated conservative,” which really means a moderate at best, or a liberal at worst.
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