Flip-flops should hearten conservatives

With summer drawing to a close, flip-flops can still come in handy as philosophical accessories, even if no longer preferred as footwear. Judging by the number of ideological somersaults currently being performed by some of the major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, summer may well extend beyond its seasonal boundaries this year. Who are the acrobats and what are the verbal gyrations about? Take them in alphabetical order: Rudy Giuliani was recently heard on the O’Reilly Factor advocating a tough enforcement-first immigration policy in response to charges that he was the mayor of a “sanctuary city”.

Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas who came second in a truncated straw poll in Ames, Iowa, last week, is embracing the Fair Tax, a plan to replace the income tax with a national sales tax, amid accusations from the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth that he actually increased taxes and oversaw rising government spending in his State when he was Governor.

Last but not least, Mitt Romney, the winner of the aforementioned poll, finds himself relentlessly rebutting recurring denunciations that he is basically a hypocrite for expressing pro-life views now when in reality he explicitly championed pro-choice positions when he ran for office in Massachusetts back in 1994 and 2002.

Yet on the basis of the evidence, my question is: So what?

After all, prominent conservatives like Richard Weaver, one of the early intellectual founders of the modern conservative movement, explained in an article published in the Fall 1960 issue of Modern Age that back in 1932, he “joined the American Socialist Party”. Frank Meyer, another influential conservative intellectual, was a former Communist. And we all know the identity of that FDR fan from Hollywood who was a registered Democrat until the 1950s and ended up being elected President of the United States twice, proudly wearing a Republican button on his lapel on both occasions.

Granted, flip-flops do raise doubts about the authenticity of a candidate’s views on important issues. Granted, electoral expediency may well account, to some varying degree, for some of the latest changes of heart. However what conservatives should bear in mind and rejoice at is the supposedly final direction of the retractions: theirs!

Indeed the substance of the statements now being made by the contenders is decidedly conservative: a fairer tax code, lower taxes, preserving life and protecting the country’s borders. What all this proves is that seven years after President Bush was first elected, conservatism is still the philosophical driving force behind the set of policies that the Republican Party, at least at the grassroots level, feels very comfortable with.

Some will rightly point out that there is nothing particularly unusual about primary contenders “pandering” to the base. Once the nomination is sewn up, the eventual winner -- it is feared -- will tack to the center to appeal to supposedly more moderate voters nationwide, in effect promising to oppose the Fair Tax, to argue for a guest-worker program or to support abortion once again as the case may be. So what again? Even if that prediction turns out to be true, conservatism will still paradoxically eventually come out on top.

Indeed two scenarios may well be expected to be played out successfully for conservatives in the next twelve months, regardless of the likelihood of an even more conservative candidate taking the plunge. The first script goes something like this: the Republican nominee wins the nomination on a consistently conservative platform and decides to run away from the center in the general election. If he wins, then America will prove to be a center-right nation and he will have to govern accordingly. Even if he loses, conservatism is not likely to take the same kind of electoral beating that it did back in 1964 -- and even then, history has shown that one major electoral setback was not enough to destroy its resilience.

The second scenario is more familiar but no less favorable to conservatives: the winning contender sounds conservative enough to his base in the primaries but, hearing ghostly echoes of the old liberal adage that “a conservative can’t win”, resolves to steer to the center until November. Conservatives could then either (a) sit on their hands in the general election and hand the Presidency over to the Democrats, in which case they would have to be taken even more seriously next time round.

Or they could (b) finally decide to heed Frank Meyer’s call in National Review in 1960 urging conservatives “to be fully prepared to walk out and (…) fulfill their duty of presenting to the country a meaningful choice”, sowing the seeds of a doggedly chimerical but potentially auspicious realignment in the process.

Wishful thinking? I wish you a pleasant Indian summer…

Note: "Paoli" is the pen name, or should we say nom de plume, of our French correspondent, a close student of European politics and a good friend of America. He informs us the original Pasquale Paoli, 1725-1807, was the George Washington of Corsica.