Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, December 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — Scott Walker insists that when he changes his positions, he is not engaged in “flips.”

“A flip would be someone who voted on something and did something different,” the Wisconsin governor explained last week on Fox News. His altered views on immigration don’t count because he is not a legislator. “These are not votes,” he helpfully pointed out.

Sheer brilliance! Other than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Walker’s major rivals at the moment are Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). They have all cast lots of votes. So Walker can accuse them of flip-flopping while claiming blanket immunity for himself.

Unfortunately for the Republican Party and the country, Walker’s careful parsing of shape-shifting counts as one of the cerebral high points of the debate among the party’s 2016 presidential candidates.

The shortage of philosophical adventure and the eagerness of GOP hopefuls to alter their positions to make them more conservative have the same cause: a Republican primary electorate that has moved so far right that it brooks no deviationism. What makes it even harder for the candidates to break new ground is that the imperatives of orthodoxy are constraining even the thinkers who are trying to create a new “reform conservatism.”

The fall-in-line-or-fall-in-the-polls rule means that Walker has gone from supporting to opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, as has Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ). Rubio got much praise for his work in negotiating a bipartisan bill that would have allowed the undocumented to become citizens — and then, faced with hostility from tea partyers, he turned against it.

Paul, the most daring of the lot because of his libertarian convictions, deserves kudos for being true to his small-state ideology by standing up — literally, for nearly 11 hours on the Senate floor — against the Patriot Act. But even Paul has recast his foreign policy positions to make them sound more hawkish and thus more in keeping with prevailing Republican views.

Accommodating right-wing primary voters poses real risks to the party in next year’s elections. Its candidates’ messages on immigration and gay marriage, could hurt the GOP with, respectively, Latinos and the young.

But the greater loss is that none of the leading Republicans is willing to offer a more fundamental challenge to the party’s rightward lurch over the past decade. L. Brent Bozell III, a prominent activist on the right, could thus legitimately claim to The Washington Post: “The conservative agenda is what is winning the field.”

Where, for example, is the candidate willing to acknowledge that, like it or not, there’s no way anywhere close to all Americans will be able to get health insurance unless government plays a very large role? Where is the Republican who will admit that if the party had its way on further tax cuts, many programs Americans like would fall by the wayside?

The reform conservatives were supposed to remedy this shortcoming, and they have issued some detailed proposals. But their efforts remain largely reactive. Last week, Yuval Levin, the intellectual leader of the movement, joined a symposium in Reason, the sprightly libertarian magazine, to reassure others on the right that reform conservatives are — honest and true! — no less committed than they are to “limited government,” to rolling back “the liberal welfare state,” and to reducing government’s “size and scope.”

It’s not surprising that Levin’s fervently anti-statist Reason interlocutors were not fully persuaded. What’s disappointing to those outside conservatism’s ranks is that the Reformicons are so often defensive.

With occasional exceptions, they have been far more interested in proving their faithfulness to today’s hard-line right than in declaring, as conservatives in so many other democracies have been willing to do, that sprawling market economies need a rather large dose of government. Conservatives, Levin says, are “eager to build on the long-standing institutions of our society to improve things.” Good idea. But somehow, the successes of decades-old governmental institutions in areas such as retirement security, health care provision and environmental protection are rarely acknowledged.

Many Republicans, especially reform conservatives, know that most Americans who criticize government in the abstract still welcome many of its activities. Yet stating this obvious fact is now politically incorrect on the right. Conservatives who condemn political correctness in others need to start calling it out on their own side. Otherwise, Scott Walker’s artful redefinition of flip-flopping could become the 2016 Republican debate’s most creative intellectual contribution.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: irrational_cat via Flickr