Conservative Movement At Crossroads

Each of the Republican presidential candidate claims to be the true conservative — but who is? And what does that mean, anyway? Host Guy Raz looks at the state of conservatism particularly as it applies to the GOP candidates in a roundtable discussion with Dan McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative; Matthew Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.; and Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Joining me now here in the studio is Dan McCarthy. He's the editor of The American Conservative magazine. Dan McCarthy, welcome.

DAN MCCARTHY: Thank you.

RAZ: Also, Matthew Franck is with us. He's the director of the Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, where he joins me now. Welcome.

MATTHEW FRANCK: Thanks. Good to be here.

RAZ: And Yaron Brook, who is the president of the Ayn Rand Institute. And he's with me from his home in Trabuco Canyon, California. Yaron Brook, welcome.

YARON BROOK: Thank you.

RAZ: Let me begin with you, Dan McCarthy, here in the studio. What is your definition of a conservative?

MCCARTHY: Well, conservatism has been in a rather difficult position over the last 20 years or so because it's become a kind of anti-liberalism as opposed to something that has roots in a philosophy derived from Edmund Burke or David Hume or someone like Michael Oakeshott.

Conservatism is a defense of ordinary life against the sort of vast forces that would attempt to transform it, whether those are ideological or whether they are economic or political in the case of big government.

RAZ: Matthew Franck, looking at the current crop of Republican candidates running for president, who do you think best defines what it means to be a conservative?

FRANCK: Oh, that's a good question. You know, like many interested observers of the election, I'm disinclined to single out a particular candidate. But I think that as things are developing in the race, we're seeing very strong set of alternatives in Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. And Santorum in particular is coming on strong, I think, as everyone knows, because of the evangelical vote in Iowa. He is a Catholic, of course, but Catholics and evangelicals are very much in sync on many of the issues that face us in our public square today.

RAZ: Yaron Brook, when you look at this crop of candidates, Republican candidates, who do you think best embodies the principles of Ayn Rand and libertarianism?

BROOK: I don't think any of them do. I mean, I think there's a certain sense in which Ron Paul represents a certain aspect of objectivism of Ayn Rand's ideas, certain aspects of the economic policies, his defense of free markets, his strong advocacy for reducing the size of government.

But then I think, you know, he kind of goes off the wall in his foreign policy. And I don't consider his foreign policy a legitimate one or one that is consistent with Ayn Rand's, I suppose. And he still, you know, holds on strongly to his religiosity. It's a part of his political agenda, which I think, you know, again, Rand would reject completely if you would advocate strongly the separation between religion, between church and state. So while there seems to be a semblance between his ideas and (unintelligible), I think it's more superficial than deep.

RAZ: Dan McCarthy, from The American Conservative magazine, which candidate do you think best represents conservative views?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's very interesting. We saw in the Iowa exit polls that voters who said they were most interested in a true conservative actually supported Ron Paul. And now, it's kind of surprising, because as this discussion has mentioned, religiosity seems to be one of the defining qualities of conservatism today. And Ron Paul certainly is religious, but he doesn't make it as much a part of his program politically as someone like Rick Santorum does.

But I think what you see here is a shifting of terms. That, in fact, Ron Paul harkens back with older kind of conservatism that was once sort of identified with people like Robert A. Taft in the 1950s. So, in fact, there's a very good case to be made.

RAZ: Kind of isolationism.

MCCARTHY: Well, isolationism isn't the right word, because, you know, Ron Paul believes in trade as indeed, you know, people like - what Thomas Jefferson did. But they didn't believe in sort of actively, you know, engaging with military forces, you know, trying to transform the world by force.

RAZ: Having a large U.S. presence overseas, for example.

MCCARTHY: Or, indeed, having a large, you know, such a large military that it becomes a crushing economic burden. So there's actually a very strong case for a kind of conservatism that Ron Paul has, not just a libertarianism, but actually an older sort of 1950s and before kind of conservatism.

RAZ: Yaron Brook from the Ayn Rand Institute, I should point out that you do not consider yourself necessarily a conservative. And Ayn Rand certainly wasn't considered a conservative by the movement when she was alive. But John Boehner, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, obviously Rand and Ron Paul and several other congressional Republicans often quote Ayn Rand, consider her an important influence. Are you surprised at how many conservatives and Republicans are drawing from Ayn Rand today?

BROOK: Well, not really. You know, she did not consider herself a conservative, certainly not. William F. Buckley was quite clear that he did not want Ayn Rand and Randians part of the movement, primarily because of the issue of religion. But I'm not surprised. I think they're looking for new arguments. They're looking for intellectual inspiration. They're looking for something new that can really defend their position.

With regards to limited government, I think the reliance on tradition, the reliance on religious arguments, the reliance on kind of traditional mall arguments has been a failure. And I think many of them know it.

RAZ: Dan McCarthy, why does Romney have such a difficult time convincing conservatives that he is a true conservative?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think during the primary season, you'll always see that people have - their first priorities, which are, you know, especially among the more philosophically committed elements of the party, are not typically going to be the most electable candidates. But eventually, you do tend to find the party coalescing behind someone who is pretty far from being perfect by any kind of conservative philosophical measure, whether it's as a religious conservative or a libertarian conservative or what the case might be.

George W. Bush, for example, was not really, even in 2000, someone who was another Ronald Reagan, for example. Certainly, he was not another Barry Goldwater. Similarly in 2008 with John McCain. This was someone that a great number of conservatives had problems with, but they eventually were willing to support him because they thought Barack Obama would be a disaster.

And again, I think this illustrates that conservatism has sort of reduced itself to being a mere anti-liberalism. And so as long as there's a demon figure or an enemy out there against whom you can organize, even these characters who are not at all Goldwaterite or Reaganite or Taftian conservatives, are able to get the party behind them simply because of what they're opposing.

RAZ: But it sounds like - I'm going to throw this question out to all of you - that when you look at the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, there is not a single one, maybe for the moment, who can sort of unite all of these wings of the party, or is there?

FRANCK: There are some people who bowed out who might have been very interesting contenders. Tim Pawlenty is probably kicking himself for having gotten out so early and not stuck around to see if he got a second look. Chris Christie didn't get in. Mitch Daniels didn't get in. Paul Ryan begged off, Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, not all of these would have been fabulous candidates for one reason or another. But they certainly would have presented us with a richer array of choices.

MCCARTHY: Well, that only looks to be the case, though, in retrospect. If someone like Jon Huntsman, for example, had not got in the race and you'd look at his resume, you would have said, this guy would be a real contender. This guy would be one of the top tier.

FRANCK: Sure.

MCCARTHY: So, in fact, I think you actually have a very broad selection of candidates on offer here. And the problems, whatever they may be, it's not the fact that we don't have enough candidates or don't have candidates who represent a broad enough spectrum of philosophies. There's something more fundamental that's going wrong here, and maybe Barack Obama just is fortunate that not just this particular slate of candidates, but the Republican Party as a whole doesn't have any kind of focused mission or any clear idea what its identity is.

BROOK: That's right. I think the real issue is a much more fundamental issue, and that is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement don't know what they really stand for. And you could see this in the Tea Party. The Tea Party was a movement that was clear about what it was against that had no real idea about what it was for other than some slogans about limited government. They had no idea how to get there, why they should get there, what it looked like when they got there.

And I think, generally, it goes back to this notion that I think you mentioned earlier about conservatism being primarily anti-liberal rather than having a clear positive agenda. And as long as it's just anti, I think it's going to struggle to have a real candidate and have a real agenda for the future.

RAZ: That's Yaron Brook. He is the president of the Ayn Rand Institute, speaking to us from his home in Southern California. We also heard from Dan McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative, and Matthew Franck. He is the director of the Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

FRANCK: Thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

BROOK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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