Conservatives By Any Other Name

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Walking with his daughter Elizabeth, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) makes his way to a House GOP caucus meeting, on Capitol Hill, on July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.

George W. Bush famously waged his first campaign for president as a “compassionate conservative.”

He campaigned on education and immigration reform — signing that “No Child Left Behind” act by the end of his first year. Immigration was supposed to come next — “family values,” Bush reminded audiences, “don’t stop at the Rio Grande.”

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, got in the way — turning that self-styled compassionate conservative who campaigned with a pledge to avoid “nation building” into a war-waging president who sought to build democracies in his path.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman from Wisconsin who ran for vice president in 2012 and could well be in line to serve as speaker of the House, famously rolled out a proposed budget a few years back that took the compassion out of conservative. Yesterday, he told an audience at the Brookings Institution, he dislikes that Bush label.

In an address at a Social Mobility Summit., Ryan allowed that “government is a very powerful tool” but said: “Just as government can increase opportunity, government can destroy it as well…. There is perhaps no better example of government’s ability to disappoint, to miss the mark than LBJ’s War on Poverty … Despite our spending trillions of dollars, 47 million people live in poverty, 15 percent of our fellow citizens, … the highest rate in a generation. … it’s missing its mark.”

Ryan said: “Our goal should be to reintegrate the poor into our communities, but Washington is walling them up as if they are in some massive quarantine.”

Now Ryan is an unlikely contender for president in 2016.  As budget chairman, or even as speaker eventually, he will be presiding over something else, however — a drive by his party to restrain spending on social welfare programs and add some means-testing to the benefits long guaranteed those in retirement. “I hope he wants to be speaker,” the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has said.

Which leaves the rest of the party’s potential candidates to work out the meaning of conservative.

Jeb Bush, younger brother of the compassionate conservative and son of another president, has declared that he is a “practicing conservative.” Yet that doesn’t mean he’s running for president in 2016.

“Look, I’m a conservative and I’m a practicing one, not a talk-about-it one,” Bush said recently. “I would put my record up against anybody that’s in Congress right now.”

Meaning, Sens. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz?

“I’m trying to avoid the family conversation to be honest with you. I want to defer that to when it matters,” Bush said at an appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York in November. “There’s a time to make a decision. You shouldn’t make it too early, you shouldn’t make it too late. There’s a time. There’s a window. And this is not the time for me. This is the time to show a little self-restraint.”

Cruz shut down the government, or at least part of it, in his failed bid to block Obamacare. That makes him a practicing conservative, too, or perhaps a tactical conservative.

Paul has taken on the Federal Reserve, if only rhetorically. He is a libertarian on social issues on the one hand, yet a fiscal conservative on the other:

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the one who stands the greatest challenge of convincing those early caucus participants and primary voters in 2016 that he is as conservative as the field of conservatives seeking the ’16 nomination. National Review calls Christie a “Diva,” and they’re showing little sympathy for the George Washington Bridge scandal consuming the Garden State.

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