Three Takes On What Defines Conservatism In 2012

Sal Russo on NPR – February 8, 2012

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LYNN NEARY, HOST: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The need to win the conservative vote has dominated the Republican presidential race. Each candidate wants to be seen as the real conservative, and Rick Santorum swept last night’s races in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado thanks in large part to his appeal to conservative voters.

But as conservative leaders from across the country gather in Washington for this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, some are wondering exactly what it means to be conservative these days. Is it largely about fiscal responsibility, or are social issues more important? And can conservatives every find common ground with moderates, even liberals?

We’ll ask those questions of several well-known conservatives, starting with Sal Russo, the co-founder of the Tea Party Express. But first we want to hear from conservatives. What does it mean to you to be a conservative? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is [email protected]. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we’ll take a look at mourning in the digital age. But first, we go to Sal Russo, the co-founder of the political action committee called the Tea Party Express. He joins us now from the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California. Welcome to the program.

SAL RUSSO: Thanks very much for having me.

NEARY: So we have been seeing the power of conservatives, Tea Party conservatives in particular, playing out in this race for the Republican nomination. Obviously we have an example from Rick Santorum’s victories yesterday. And he picked up support in the Tea Party in those wins. Do you see the Tea Party as the future of conservatism?

RUSSO: Well, you know, modern conservatism, which really got developed by William F. Buckley and some of the people at National Review in the late ’50s, combined three elements of our politics – economic, social and foreign policy conservatives – and bound them together into the modern conservative movement.

So it’s kind of a three-legged stool, and depending on what’s going on in the times, one of those legs becomes more dominant than the other. The foreign policy was primarily anti-communist. I would say today it’s pretty much anti-terrorist. So those are the three legs of the stool.

The Tea Party Express only focuses on one. We only have stands on economic issues, and the basic premise of the Tea Party movement, generally, and the Tea Party Express is opposition to the increasing size, cost and intrusiveness of the federal government with an unsustainable national debt that’s now jeopardizing the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to realize the American dream.

We add one other thing that is not necessarily uniform among all the Tea Party groups, and that is that budget cuts alone can’t get us out of this fiscal mess that we’re in, that we have to really institute pro-growth policies in Washington, and a good place to start is to get rid of our current tax code, which not only fosters crony capitalism but also inhibits growth.

So the Tea Party is one leg of that conservative stool, and because the economic issues are the most important, it’s why I think the Tea Party has been so successful in the last three years.

NEARY: Well, that’s interesting because you – I mean, as you were saying, it’s always been a three-legged stool. You’re coming right out and saying, no, the Tea Party is just one leg. So then how do you define its influence on the party if you’re only – if you’re focusing so narrowly on that one issue, then do you expect to have any influence on those other issues, foreign policy, social issues as well? How do you?

RUSSO: Well, you know, it’s a blessing for us in the sense that because people are concerned about the economic issues, the coalition that we get to support, candidates that we endorse, it’s a lot broader because, you know, we tolerate people that have different views on foreign policy, and you know, we have some – you know, the Ron Paul libertarians that are comfortable with Tea Party Express.

We have people on both sides of the social issues that are comfortable with Tea Party Express because we stay focused on – you know, my old friend Jack Kemp used to always say to be successful in politics you have to be in concert with the zeitgeist of the times.

Well, clearly the zeitgeist of the times is concerned about our economy, economic growth and the overspending and the growth of the federal government. So we think that, you know, that’s why we were successful in the elections in 2010, and when you, when you – you know, sometimes we have to think back to how successful we were.

Of the 37 U.S. Senate seats, the Democrats won 13. We elected more Republicans to state legislative seats since 1928. We elected more Republican congressmen in a bi-election since 1938.

NEARY: You know, you elected a lot of people to Congress, but Congress has a pretty low popularity rate at this point, and part of it derives from the fact that they – there seems to be an inability in Congress to agree on anything, and there are those even within your own party, even among conservatives, who think that the Tea Party mentality may be to blame for that.

RUSSO: Well, anybody who says that I think is clearly wrong. The problem with the Congress is that it’s sharply divided. The Senate is run by liberals, the House is run by conservatives, and at a time when the economy and the growth of government is so key, the differences between the two parties is great.

I mean, one party wants to grow the government, the other wants to shrink. One wants to spend money, one wants to spend less. So it’s very difficult to find a compromise, and the public gets frustrated and fed up when they see inaction in Washington, and then of course we have a president that’s completely divorced himself from the legislative process. So he’s nowhere to be seen.

So that’s the mess that people are fed up with.

NEARY: But there is – there are – there is concern – again, even within your own party, that the Tea Party is too extreme and that its brand of conservatism could hurt the GOP’s chances in the general election. I mean, how do you think the Tea Party’s influence will play out in the general election this fall?

RUSSO: Well, if you listen to what I said about what the Tea Party Express stands for, I would say 70 to 75 percent of Americans agree with that. So far from being extreme, you know, we supported the tax bill in the lame-duck session. That had far too much spending in it, but in the interest of compromise, to extend the income tax cuts because we think you have to have pro-growth policies.

So, you know, we’ve been ready, willing and able and have demonstrated a willingness to participate in the process and move the process forward. You know, some people aren’t. You know, there’s obviously – there’s naysayers on all sides of the issue, but I think the Tea Party Express has been extremely responsible.

NEARY: All right, let’s get a caller…

RUSSO: That’s why we’ve become the biggest and largest of all the Tea Party groups that are engaged in the political process.

NEARY: All right, let’s get a caller on. We’ve got Catherine(ph) from Palo Alto, California on the phone. Hi, Catherine, go ahead.

CATHERINE: Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Good, thanks.

CATHERINE: I’m a Republican. I’ve been a Republican all my life. I’m actually on the Republican Central Committee. I’m a fiscal Republican. I believe in small government, less taxes; that kind of goes further into fewer social services. But I’m a social liberal.

I don’t care if gay people want to get married or not. I care about the economy. I care about making life better for the people in America. And I feel like the extreme right, the extreme conservatism on the social part, is a red herring.

It’s divisive. It’s dividing Republicans against Republicans, and if we quit fighting amongst each other on this extreme platform, we could actually focus on beating the Democrats in the next election. And I really, really wish that the Republicans would revise their platform to focus on what the Republicans should be focusing on, focusing on the government, focusing on the taxes, the economy, the issues at hand, and leave all this ridiculous stuff, the extreme, extreme, you know, anti-gay issues, the whole pro-choice, pro-life thing.

You know, that’s a red herring. Let’s focus on the important issues at hand and leave the extreme stuff on the table for later.

NEARY: All right, Sal Russo, what’s your reaction to that? Thanks very much for your call, Catherine.

RUSSO: Well, I mean just the reality, just to get to 50 percent plus one, which is the purpose of political parties, to win elections, I mean today the only way Republicans win is if they can command that conservative majority, which means they have to bind together the economic, social and foreign policy conservatives. It’s got to be the conservative party.

That doesn’t mean to be doctrinaire. That doesn’t mean to be intolerant. It doesn’t mean to accept people that maybe agree on one or just two of the legs of the conservative stool. So I think the key thing for Republicans is that they’ve got to be open to people that don’t necessarily agree 100 percent. We shouldn’t have a purity test.

If someone wants to join with us, even if they don’t agree with us all the time, we should accept them readily. And sometimes people look for 100 percent agreement on all three legs of the stool. If you do that, it’s not a majority. A majority is the three legs of the stool with varying degrees of agreeing on each stool. That’s how you get to 50 percent plus one.

Your caller was from the Silicon Valley area, and we did some work for Tom Campbell, who was the congressman from that region, and I used to always say to him when he ran, he made similar comments to the caller, that for the Republican Party to be a majority, you have to have some people that are in the Silicon Valley passing around white wine and cheese, and at the same time you have Republicans in Kentucky that are passing around live rattlesnakes.

So it takes a diverse group of people to get to be a majority in America, and so we have to be tolerant of people that do have different views and maybe aren’t 100 percent on all three legs of the stool. But if you abandon one leg of the stool, you don’t have a majority. So you’ve got to have the three legs.

NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Russo.

RUSSO: You bet.

NEARY: Sal Russo joined us from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California. And joining us now from our bureau in New York is Reihan Salam. He’s a young conservative and the author of a book called “Grand New Party.” Welcome to the show.

REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having me, though I should say that I’m not as young as I used to be.


NEARY: OK, well, we won’t ask your age.


NEARY: As you just heard, we were speaking with Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express. Of course they’ve gotten a lot of attention. Do you think the Tea Party represents the future of conservatism?

SALAM: Well, I think it represents a moment, and I think that conservatism in my view has had a series of successive moments. Sal offered a historical view that is very widely shared, which is that the conservatism that we know today flows naturally from the conservatism of the late 1950s as articulated by William F. Buckley, Jr., a figure greatly admired by many conservatives.

I would argue that it’s somewhat different, that actually we’ve had a series of different conservatisms and that the Tea Party is only the most recent. And one reason this has come to mind recently is that I had the great pleasure of reading this fascinating exchange of letters between Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who is widely seen as a stalwart conservative, who really shaped modern conservatism in all kinds of ways, and George Romney, the father of current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

And the debate they had was basically over whether or not the Republican Party should be an ideological party. Should it be a party that represents a clear set of shared principles, or should it be more of a coalition?

NEARY: Keep that questions – I want you to keep that in your mind, that question in your mind, and I want to hear the answer to it when we come back after a short break, and you’re going to stay with us, Reihan. Reihan Salam is our guest. We’re talking about what it means to be a conservative. And we’d love to hear from you. If you’re a conservative, what does it mean to you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. I’m Lynn Neary. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Lynn Neary. Ron Paul recently said if you’re going to be conservative, you’re supposed to follow the Constitution and always limit the power and the scope of the federal government. It’s a theme we’ve seen played out throughout the Republican primaries. What and who is a real conservative?

We want to hear from those of you who identify as conservatives. What does it mean to you to be conservative? 800-989-8255 is the number, and the email address is [email protected]. Our guest is Reihan Salam. He writes for the Daily and the National Review, and he co-wrote the book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

And as we went to the break, Reihan, you were posing a sort of interesting rhetorical question, which I’d like you to continue with that, if you could.

SALAM: Oh, of course. So there has been a tension for a long time within the Republican Party over whether the party should be a loose coalition, in which people disagree about a lot of issues, particularly about social issues, or whether or not it should be a very ideologically unified party, and in being ideologically unified exert more leverage on the broader political system.

And I’d say that there’s been a really big change, primarily driven, I would argue, by campaign finance regulations from the early ’70s on towards being a more ideologically unified party, and that has brought some benefits, but it has also brought some significant costs to the Republican Party.

NEARY: What are the negatives of being too ideological, if you think it’s gone in that direction?

SALAM: Well, again, I wouldn’t say that it’s a matter of being too ideological, but what I would say is that, well, the obvious cost is that it becomes far more difficult to be flexible once you are actually governing.

So one of the things that George Romney, who was a governor of Michigan in the 1960s, warned against is that if you have parties that are very ideologically rigid, it’s going to be very hard for them to reach compromises across the aisle.

So back then you had parties that had very vague platforms, whereas now, more recently, as Americans have grown more educated, they want more consistency from their politicians. They want to know that, well, if you pledge to do X and Y on taxes, you will deliver X and Y once in office. But the truth is that legislative compromise is always a very messy process.

And sometimes you go into office with one set of assumptions, and then once you’re actually at the negotiating table, you sometimes have to do things a little differently. Now, if your followers punish you for that kind of behavior, well, that means that you’re not going to engage in that kind of compromising behavior, whether you’re on the political left or the political right.

And I would say that that poses a really big problem when you encounter new challenges, new circumstances, shocks to the system that you didn’t necessarily anticipate when you were running for office rather than governing.

NEARY: All right, let’s take a call now from Jim; he’s in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: You’re welcome.

JIM: And I am a conservative and have been since really before my college days, and I identify myself as a social conservative and a fiscal conservative. And part – you know, my main basis for that is the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and my faith, my personal Catholic faith. So those are the foundations for my conservatism.

NEARY: And would you say, Reihan, is that – would you say that that’s fairly typical for somebody who would identify themselves as conservative?

SALAM: Absolutely. I think that there are a lot of religiously devout Americans who embrace conservative views on social and on fiscal issues.

NEARY: And Jim, how is your belief, how does that translate into policy for you?

JIM: Well, I would like to see the protection for the unborn and protection for the elderly that currently is – I see it as currently being severely undermined. And so I would like to see every person have a chance for life and liberty and the wonderful things that we have in this country.

NEARY: All right, thank you so much for your call, Jim.

JIM: You’re welcome.

NEARY: Now, so we’re hearing from Jim that social issues are really important to him, and I would ask you, Reihan, as somebody who is looking towards creating the conservatism of the future, of being there – when you have the tension between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, and some fiscal conservatives really do not agree with all the goals of social conservatism, how do you resolve that?

SALAM: Well, I think that there’s a fairly straightforward way. It’s not something that’s embraced by all conservatives. But I think one strategy is to say that, well, wait a second, a lot of these issues that are the most controversial issues in our country, as they relate to civil rights for gays and lesbians, as they relate to abortion laws, these were things that had traditionally been dealt with at the state and local level rather than be nationalized.

And so that’s one way a lot of conservatives reconcile this issue. They say, you know, let’s shift those issues back to state governments, allow state governments to compete for citizens in terms of offering different mixes of social regulation and also economic regulation, and in that way allow all states to serve citizens better.

NEARY: All right, let me just read one more email to you before you have to go. This is from John(ph) in St. Louis, Missouri: I believe the true definition of conservatism is embodied in Nixon’s Checkers speech. Though I will always consider myself conservative, that label today is worn by those who can only be described as extreme right-wing radicals and religious fundamentalists, hardly a textbook definition of the word conservative.

Right there I think you’ve got a summary of some of the problems facing your movement, Reihan.

SALAM: Well, I guess I disagree. I think the folks who believe that, who take that perspective, have really been lost to the conservative movement for a very long time. My own suspicion is that on a lot of substantive policy issues, the party has actually moved to the center, yet that’s very hard to see because a lot of folks tend to focus on the enthusiasm and energy of the Tea Party movement.

But if you look at issues relating to reforming health entitlements, if you look at the tax code, I actually think you see folks like Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania senator and former head of the Club for Growth, saying, well, wait a second, you know, it actually might be sensible to compromise some of our views on these issues.

Paul Ryan is someone who has embraced ideas that had been championed by Democrats in the late 1990s for how to get out of our entitlement mess. But the thing is that people hear this hard-edged, confrontational, ideological language, and they say, ah, well, these guys are right-wing lunatics, when in fact a lot of that’s the prism through which the media presents these stories and also through which we hear things.

So I think that it’s more complicated than that.

NEARY: Well, Reihan, thanks so much for being with us today.

SALAM: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Reihan Salam co-wrote the book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream,” and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Well, as we’ve been hearing, the conservative identity has shifted over the years, and so to help put all this in context, we turn to Jack Pitney. He’s a political scientist who writes about Republicans and conservatives, and he joins us from a studio in Claremont, California. Welcome to the program.

JACK PITNEY: Thank you very much.

NEARY: So you know, I remember a time, and I’m dating myself by saying this, when, you know, I think conservatives were sort of considered somewhat to be on the fringe of American politics, and I’m thinking of, you know, the Barry Goldwater election, where he was so roundly trounced by Lyndon Johnson. He was really rejected at that time, and then gradually he moved in to become a much more powerful politician on the national scene, and conservatives in general became much more powerful.

How did this transition occur from people being very skeptical, feeling like the conservatives were sort of fringe, to them being at the center of political power?

PITNEY: The key figure here was Ronald Reagan because Reagan did two things that were extremely important. First, he presented a friendly face to conservatism. Whereas conservatives prior to Reagan were often very angry, Reagan was very cheerful, very optimistic, and people could relate to him on a human level.

So Reagan put a friendly human face on conservatism. The second thing, of course, that Reagan did, and a lot of contemporary liberals emphasize this point, is that he could compromise when he had to. His first major act as governor of California was the largest tax increase in California history.

Reagan also signed the most liberal abortion law in the United States up to that time. So Reagan, known historically as a hard-charging conservative, was actually a pragmatist when he had to be.

NEARY: Now, you, I think – you worked on the Hill in the 1980s when Reagan was president. Is that correct?

PITNEY: That’s correct.

NEARY: Yeah. OK, so what do you think of where things are moving now, where there seems to be this extremely hard-edged conservatism, very unwilling to compromise? I know that Sal Russo just said that wasn’t the case, but it is the perception people have, that there’s very little room for compromise with many of the conservatives in office and on the Hill today.

What’s your take on where things are at now in terms of conservatism?

PITNEY: Well, during the 1980s, Reagan had to contend with a lot of dissent within his own party. In 1982 he supported a tax increase that Newt Gingrich at the time characterized as Ronald Reagan serving as the – serving as the coach for the welfare state, that he was going to score a touchdown for the welfare state.

And since then we’ve seen something happen at both parties in Congress. The conservative Republicans have become more conservative; the liberal Democrats have become more liberal. During the 1980s, Reagan was able to win enactment of much of his policy through the support of conservative Southern Democrats. Well, those conservative Southern Democrats are largely absent. Conversely, a lot of the liberal Republicans who held a good deal of influence in the 1980s and 1990s are also gone. So part of the problem that you alluded to at the beginning of the program is that you have two parties with very little common ground. That’s was where the compromises were reached in the 1980s, between the more conservative to moderate Democrats, the more liberal to moderate Republicans. That’s what makes the compromise difficult to reach in the current Congress.

NEARY: All right. Let’s take a call now. We’re going to go to Keith, and he is in Gainesville, Florida. Hi, Keith.

KEITH: Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

KEITH: I am – have always been a conservative but not always a Republican. In the state of Florida, we had Southern conservatives for all of my life. I want less government. I want the government to be involved and to intervene only when that is constitutionally necessary. I think the civil rights movement is a good example of the government saying, we need to assert these rights because they exist in all people and are articulated in the Constitution. So that’s where I come from in conservatism.

On the social issues, they get in the way, it seems, of finding the common ground. And I’ll tell you, my 98-year-old grandmother who’s been a conservative and Republican since before women can vote, who drives and plays competitive bridge, is really getting disturbed by this polarization and lack of statesmanship in what are supposed to be the conservative movement.

NEARY: All right. Keith, thanks for that point. And I’m going to ask Jack Pitney to respond and to – I mean, when did, you know, the social issues become such a prominent part of the conservative movement. And is that where the tension within conservativism began, or was there always a tension within conservativism?

There have always been tensions within conservatism. The tensions have involved policy, tensions have involved matters of strategy and tactics, where what we today consider to be the social issues came into play was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the time when President Reagan was beginning to draw religious conservatives, particularly in the South, into the Republican Party in a way they hadn’t been present before. So that’s really the historical time in which issues such as abortion and gay rights became prominent in the party. Although an important distinction has to be made on social issues. Two different sets of issues here, abortion and gay rights. And they’re taking very different paths.

PITNEY: If you look at conservatives today, particularly among younger conservatives, I think you’re seeing more acceptance of gay rights even among younger conservatives’ support for gay marriage. Abortion is a very different story. A lot of conservatives care very much about abortion, and their position hasn’t changed. And as we see in the current fight over the HHS rules, they’re very willing to take a very public stand and fight very hard on that. So I think the abortion issue is on a very different track from the gay rights issue.

NEARY: Let me read this email to you and just get your reaction to it. Dear folks, I was a Republican all my life. That changed in 2008, when John McCain put Ms. Palin on the ticket, and the far right attacked the religion, citizenry and loyalty of Barack Obama. I knew the extreme had hijacked the party. I literally worked on the bus with Ronald Reagan in 1976 and ’80. I knew and worked for Jack Kempt(ph) and had the pleasure – Kemp – and had the pleasure of working – knowing Senator Goldwater. And all of them knew how to govern, get things done, work with others, and more importantly, take on the extreme in their own party. I hear the Tea Party talk about big government and high taxes yet not a peep from them when President Bush passed the prescription drug benefit or President Bush bailed out Wall Street or the auto industry. Only after Obama was elected did they all get crazy.

PITNEY: Well, the Tea Party movement, as we know it, didn’t start until a couple of years ago. As far as the bailout goes, as far as the prescription drug benefit goes, actually, those were extremely controversial within the Republican Party. It took a lot of arm-twisting for Speaker Hastert to pass the prescription drug bill. And as far as the bailout goes, President Bush dealt with enormous pushback from Republicans within Capitol Hill and certainly from the grassroots. So on those two particular issues, Republicans have been very vocal and very active all along. As far as the 2008 election goes, there were some Republicans who supported President Obama. But if you look at the exit polls, you find that Barack Obama did not do noticeably better among Republicans than John Kerry had done four years earlier.

NEARY: All right. let’s take a call from Gene(ph), in Jamesville, New York. Gene?

GENE: Hi. Good afternoon and thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Well, you’re welcome. Go right ahead.

GENE: I’m an old – you mentioned Barry Goldwater. I’m an old Barry Goldwater Republican, the first lever I ever flipped politically in my life was for Barry Goldwater. I tend to be a conservative that I’m for economic freedom with a lot of fiscal responsibility and a lot of personal freedom with a lot of personal responsibility, especially with the fiscal area which seems to be derailed on this tax the rich, both by conservatives and by alleged liberals.

We could do so much better by phasing out every deduction in our tax code over four or five years, including the mortgage and personal deduction. And in that way, we could probably lower tax rates or at least even them up between corporate tax rates and personal tax rates in a much more sensible way. The tax code, by consensus, is just unwieldy right now. And the simplest thing we could do is start simplifying that tax code.

As far as personal liberty, I believe (unintelligible) people should be self-governors, that they should govern themselves and they should be responsible to their actions. In that sense, I kind of lean towards Ron Paul, but I thought the best person in the whole race, including the Republicans, was former two-term governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico, who presented a very nice fiscal conservative platform, along with personal responsibility, including, like Ron Paul, legalizing most drugs and then holding people responsible for the use and the severity of regulations based on the harm to public health.

NEARY: All right. Let me – I’m going to ask – we’re going to – we’re running out of time here. Thanks for your call. I’m just going to ask Jack Pitney to respond to that and give us a final word here with less than a minute to go, Jack.

PITNEY: Well, what we’re hearing is a very clear articulation of the libertarian point of view, which is extremely coherent and consistent. The trouble for libertarians is that most voters aren’t consistent when it comes to their political views.

Conservatism favors strong government activity in certain areas, restricted government in others, and the converse is true of liberalism. It may not be the most logical and coherent form of philosophy, but that’s – those are the poles along which American public opinion tends to fall. Libertarianism, which, again, has a very long tradition, just doesn’t have the kind of popularity that people thought it might have.

NEARY: All right, Jack. Thanks so much. Jack Pitney…

PITNEY: Thank you.

NEARY: …teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College, and he joined us from a studio there. And coming up: mourning rituals for the digital age. I’m Lynn Neary. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.