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Good GOP Flip-Flops

A Commentary By Tony Blankley

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

William F. Buckley, Jr., founding father of the modern conservative movement, famously asserted his doctrine of voting for the most conservative candidate who is electable.

Let me presume to add an analytic codicil: The GOP and the conservative movement have tended to support the most conservative policies only when they are understood to be conservative and are plausibly supportable by the conservative half of the electorate.

As the ideological center of gravity on various issues has shifted back and forth across the conservative-liberal spectrum over the decades, so inevitably has conservative policy support. I have in mind four examples: abortion, federal aid to education, "cap-and-trade" and individual health mandates.

As a campaigner for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in all his campaigns, starting in his 1966 campaign for governor of California, I can vividly recall that in 1964, Goldwater and the conservative movement were against federal aid to education -- in its entirety.

But as the decades advanced, even the most conservative voters came to support at least federal loans for college students, if not other federal education aid programs, such as for the handicapped.

As a result, by 1981, President Reagan and Sen. Goldwater were no longer opposed to such federal aid -- even though we were trying to close down the Department of Education for its many other unnecessary intrusions into state and local education. (At the time, I was press secretary at the department.) Today, few members of the public and few, if any, elected officials oppose outright federal college loans, as we did in 1964.

On the other issues mentioned, the movement has been the other way -- from more liberal to more conservative. So, for example, in 1967 Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, after only six months as governor. This was before Roe v. Wade. From a total of 518 legal abortions in California in 1967, the number of abortions soared to an annual average of 100,000 in the remaining years of Reagan's two terms as governor.

As the fuller implications of these shocking and unexpected numbers emerged, conservatives started considering the moral implications. Reagan personally started reading deeply on its ethics. For example, he studied the teachings of Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, the conservative movement and the GOP became anti-abortion.

In essence, not only Reagan, put the conservative public and the GOP flip-flopped on abortion -- in the right direction. And they flip-flopped for two reasons: As they studied the matter, they saw the error of their earlier position. As the fuller implications of the bad policy became publicly debated, the center of gravity of public opinion began to move away from the liberal and towards the conservative position, making it politically feasible for the party and movement to move.

In the past 15 years, the same process has been unfolding on cap-and-trade and individual health insurance mandates. At the time, cap-and-trade was seen as a less statist position for what was presumed to be a popular, liberal objective. As the debate developed, the public moved to the right, and both the GOP and conservatives generally flipped to the right position.

Regarding the individual health mandate, in 1993, the Heritage Foundation -- then as now the gold standard for conservative think tanks -- came out for individual health care mandates. And so did most GOP elected officials at both the federal and state level.

Remember, the Clinton White House had just started its fight for true socialized medicine -- what came to be known as Hillarycare. Initially, Hillarycare had the support of over 80 percent of the public, including a majority of conservatives. Heritage developed the individual insurance mandate as the lesser of two evils at a time when the Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House.

In the following years, it became the GOP party position. So now, for example, Gov. Romney has proposed his famous Romneycare initiative.

As with abortion, when conservatives and the public started taking a closer look, the idea of any mandates became more and more repulsive. The idea of realistically challenging its constitutionality in the Supreme Court only became plausible with the later Court appointments of President George W. Bush.

The Tea Party should be very proud of the fact that it was its thought, debate and actions that moved the public center of gravity away from mandates. Eventually, with that closer study of the issue and as the public's center of ideological gravity moved to the right, the GOP and the conservative movement flip-flopped. Everyone from Heritage scholars to Romney to the GOP and most of its officeholders all flipped.

This is a good thing. Parties, movements and politicians should be encouraged to flip towards conservative, constitutional policies.

Only the most prophetic politicians -- if any -- can see far over the horizon. Even Winston Churchill supported military and naval budget cuts in the 1920s. It was not until the 1930s that he saw the threat from Germany and led the fight for rearmament.

When the entire party and movement are doing the flipping, individual politicians should not be penalized for moving in the right direction. They should be rewarded.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. E-mail him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com.

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