A blogger at the Economist recently weighed in on the various flavors of modern American conservatism. The results are distasteful.
By way of analogy, a Republican president elected in 2000 who wasn’t a Southern evangelical like George W. Bush might not have launched a multi-billion-dollar global effort to fight HIV/AIDS that involved massive funding for faith-based organisations and strict mandates for increased abstinence promotion and anti-prostitution campaigns. But it’s hard to argue that the PEPFAR programme wasn’t “conservative”.
Conservatism wasn’t invented in 2000. From Robert Taft to early National Review to Barry Goldwater in Conscience of a Conservative and beyond all the way up through Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, the program would not have been regarded as conservative. The idea of using the social welfare state for socially conservative ends really didn’t take off in conservative movement circles until the 1990s, which isn’t suprising since we are talking about a movement that rejected the very concept of a federal social welfare state for much of its history and accepted only a limited one after that.
Then we hear that the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind are conservative:
NCLB is based on a traditionally conservative emphasis on test scores and teaching “the basics”, while Medicare Part D was a massive government giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. Most conservatives themselves didn’t see them as non-conservative until Mr Bush became unpopular in 2006 and the self-serving narrative began to coalesce that his failure was due to insufficient ideological purity.
It is fair to say that conservatives didn’t oppose these bills as loudly as they would have if they had been proposed by Democrats (which they very well could have been) and that these programs had some conservative defenders. But most conservatives outside of Congress did in fact oppose both items at the time and the absolute most conservative members of Congress voted against them.
The conservaitve movement had originally opposed any federal spending on education, failing to find any constitutional authority for such expenditures. Most conservatives also opposed the creation of Medicare. But even during the Bush years, it wasn’t hard to find articles in conservative publications decrying NCLB and Medicare Part D. NCLB was regarded as an unholy alliance with Ted Kennedy. The Republican congressional leadership had to extend voting and engage in all sorts of dubious arm-twisting among conservatives to get Medicare Part D to pass the House.
UPDATE: By the way, I’m not aware of any major conservative principle that endorses a “massive government giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.” If one existed, I suspect there would have been more conservative support for Obamacare, which was backed as enthusiastically by Big Pharma as Big Labor.