If a true conservative is for small government, strong national defense and traditional values then there is no such candidate in the race. There might have been earlier, but there certainly isn't now.
Critics will point out that Reagan didn't fit that mold too well either. They're right. No leader has. Standards are aspired to, but they are rarely here in the pure form. But the other aspect of the argument is that the standards change in response to the period. Libertarian positions seem more authentically conservative in no small part because of government failures.
That is why attacking Teddy Roosevelt using what we know now as if he were a current political figure is not a valid approach. Roosevelt was a product of his time. Our politicians are a product of ours. Reagan might have been a very different leader if he had been born 30 years later and had been elected 28 years later after the Cold War and its assumptions had been washed out of the common consciousness.
So what is a conservative really? A National Review piece described Romney as the real conservative simply because he was in the business world and defended corporate profits. The former would cover Warren Buffett and Ted Turner. And the latter probably would too depending on what day of the week you ran into them.
I had not planned to address the Bain Capital mess after last night's article, but the idea that an attack on Bain is an attack on capitalism is a misanderstanding of what free enterprise is. Free enterprise does not mean that companies are immune from criticism over the impact of their business, it means that government should not regulate them to bring them into line with a socially approved model of how to do business.
Bain Capital is not really a great candidate for flying the flag of capitalism and small government. One of the Bain companies petitioned for tariff quotas and its underfunded pension plan had to be bailed out by the government. I don't have a problem with using tariffs to protect American businesses under certain conditions, but the free trade purists who attacked Santorum for his opposition to NAFTA might.
But that's the other side of the coin. People who actually do business in the real world are a poor fit for free trade purists. Successful businesses don't run in strict compliance with an ideology. Any ideology. That's the paradox of championing someone like a capitalist as a paradigm of pure capitalism. Capitalism has never been all that pure and most large companies have reached out to the government for one thing or another.
Romney, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum all have a history of going big government to achieve their goals. And how else could it be? Two of them were governors of major states. One of them was the House Majority Leader. The fourth was a United States Senator. Whether or not they talked the talk, they were always going to be somewhat more flexible when they wanted to get things done. Even Ron Paul stayed in office by going to the same pork barrel as everyone else, while making a show of voting against the pork.
So much for doctrinal purity. And all that's left are goals and beliefs. Beliefs influence how you pursue goals. It's why candidates talk about their background and their lives so much. The ideology is a factor, but not the only factor, most successful politicians are post-ideological. They pursue goals by any means necessary.
That is certainly the impression that Romney gives. Santorum is at least honest about it and willing to say openly that he will use government to achieve his goals. Santorum's goals and values can be disagreed with, but at least we know what they are. What are Romney's real goals and values? It's hard to say. He must have them and he articulates them over and over again, but the more he talks the vaguer they become. He believes in all the things we do, except when he doesn't.
We can line up candidates by stated political positions and get one result. And line up candidates by the actual methods they have used to achieve their goals and get another result. On the first metric Romney and Santorum might be far apart. On the second metric Romney and Santorum would be close together. Perry and Gingrich would probably be right there too.
That's where a record comes in. Not just the record of votes, which is often a meaningless toll of positions taken for political reasons on bills that were always going to pass or were never going to pass, but a record of actions taken that actually mattered.
Small government and politicians are a contradiction in terms. Political office depends on consensual decisions, even at the executive level. At the legislative level things get done collectively, rather than by a Mr. Smith going to Washington and hijacking all the legislative business until he gets his way. All those group decisions add up to positive legislation that employ power rather than negative legislation that give up power. Even for someone like Ron Paul who has made a career out of promoting small government, expediency is still in the mix.
All politicians who work in big government are big government politicians. There is no way around that. They may vary in the degree of how much government interference they support and how much they would like to restrict the power of government and finally in how much they have done to restrict it, but their tools are still the same. Even their methods are mostly the same.
So we have a race in which most of the candidates pay lip service to values while still employing expediency to achieve the things that they really care about and deviating from ideology when society changes. Which is to say they are politicians.
It all comes down to goals. If you believe that protecting and salvaging the family is at the center of the country's problems, then Santorum is your man. If you believe that we need someone in office who will use common sense policies to promote business, but without being confrontational about it, then vote Romney. If you want someone who will tackle a broad range of problems, but not always in ways that you agree with, then vote Gingrich. If you want an acceptable combination of Romney, Bush and Santorum, then you might be better off with Perry. If you want a candidate who will hold the line and reform the country, then you might gamble on Gingrich or gamble even more on Paul, but it's doubtful that there is any such candidate in this race.
Each of the candidates has their case to make. Santorum is right about the economic and social impact of the family, and as much as libertarians hate to hear it, there may not be a viable country without salvaging the family. Some libertarians have their own approach to the problem and they have a point that government solutions, even with the best intentions, hurt the family. But so do libertarian solutions.
Romney is right that his approach will probably help American businesses, create jobs and boost the economy. If he wins then a year later we will all probably be better off for it. Is he the man to tackle the larger economic problems caused by big government? No he isn't. And he will probably end up adding to those problems in the long run, even while creating relief in the short run.
Gingrich wants to tackle everything. Can he? Maybe. He's the only candidate who thinks big and who has a snapshot of the larger conflict, but his solutions may not be the right ones and they certainly won't follow a rigid ideology. Gingrich wants to be a great leader, but that means leading on ego and gambling that you are right. If anyone among the candidates has the background and the credentials in office to make that gamble, it's him, but he's a long way from a perfect or ideal candidate, and he has been wrong plenty of the time.
That leaves Perry, who in his own way is as vague as Romney, but whose cowboy image helps him dodge the questions that Romney can't escape. That may be because Perry is also a professional politician and with him in office, the effect a year from now also be a marked improvement for the economy. But like Romney his short term decisions will have long term consequences. Perry is a more conservative, but less electable version of Romney. He can probably win a general election, but for now he's doing poorly even here. If Obama wins, look for him to make a comeback in 2016 with a more polished approach.
Finally there's Ron Paul who in his own way has specialized in the same line as Romney. Being everything to everyone. You can be on the left and support Ron Paul. You can be on the right and support Ron Paul. Whatever policies you support, Ron Paul is for them or for allowing them at the state level. As with Romney it works better if you don't look too closely at the details. Ron Paul is for and against a range of social ills. He's for and against national defense. He's willing to be vague about 9/11 Deniers and a whole range of conspiracy theories, without quite subscribing openly to them.
Politics is a profession. It's one of the few professions whose professionals also consistently deny that they are politicians. A doctor doesn't come into his office and insist that he isn't a doctor and is only engaging in public service as a sacrifice to help people, but the first chance he gets, he's going home to get a real job. But being a politician has a negative image attached to it because it comes with the perception that you can't be trusted. Which politicians prove by lying about being politicians.
What does a real conservative candidate look like? Find the man or woman who has never been elected to anything, who gets shut out of everything, who gets dismissed as too extreme. They might be the one.