Non-Interventionism Is Conservative

Sen. John McCain’s virtually certain victory in the Republican Party’s presidential contest has led to scrutiny of his conservative credentials. The heated campaign debate between McCain and his former rival Gov. Mitt Romney about who was a less authentic conservative did more damage to Romney than to McCain because of McCain’s long-standing ability to draw upon moderate Republicans and independent voters in prior elections and in the primaries.

That aspect of McCain’s appeal has raised questions about whether his “straight talk” reputation for creative dissent amounted to “flip-flopping” on conservative principles. It made McCain the target of harsh criticism from talk radio guru Rush Limbaugh and columnist Ann Coulter, both famous for their flamboyant brand of conservatism. More important, it gave traction to one of McCain’s two remaining challengers in the primaries, Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is drawing on fundamentalist religious conservatives to win in several solidly “red” states, mainly in the South. The debate over McCain’s conservatism is part of a broader, older argument among conservatives about what constitutes conservatism, an argument so heated that The Economist last year characterized it as a “civil war.” The irony of this campaign season is that the only candidate who has consistently adhered to conservative principles, Rep. Ron Paul, has been largely ignored.

Paul’s authenticity as a conservative is evident in his support for small government, fiscal and budgetary prudence, and – most obvious, given McCain’s position on national security – for a strict non-interventionist approach to national defense. This was evident in the Republican presidential candidates’ CNN debate before Super Tuesday. When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about whether the United States is in a recession and whether Americans are “better off than we were eight years ago,” when the Bush administration began, Paul gave a very conservative answer, which included the following observations:

“No, no, we’re not better off. We’re worse off, but it’s partially this administration’s fault and it’s the Congress. But it also involves an economic system that we’ve had for a long time and a monetary system that we’ve had and a foreign policy that’s coming to an end and we have to admit this. …

“We were elected in the year 2000 to have a humble foreign policy and not police the world, and yet what are we doing now? We’re bogged down in another war. We’re bankrupting our country and we have an empire that we’re trying to defend which costs us $1 trillion a year. …

“But it has to do with a fiscal policy, monetary policy, and foreign policy of way too much spending, but it took a lot of years for us to get here. The people in this country have been begging for a change in direction, and they haven’t had it. It’s time we gave it to them.”

Paul underscored this viewpoint later in the debate:

“We should be debating foreign policy, whether we should have interventionism or non-interventionism, whether we should be defending this country or whether we should be the policemen of the world, whether we should be running our empire or not, and how are we going to have guns and butter?”

Sadly, while Ron Paul has been pointedly critical of the supposedly conservative candidates’ positions on America’s geopolitical, fiscal, and societal policies, his criticism has drawn open scorn from mainstream Republicans. Their smirks and condescension toward Paul are clearly meant to demonstrate that they are the real conservatives and he is not. Yet all they have demonstrated is why and how conservatism has gone astray.

Paul’s commitment to constitutionalism, fiscal prudence, federalism, small government, and avoiding the strategic entanglements that the founding fathers – especially Washington and Jefferson – warned against makes him the only true conservative among the Republican presidential aspirants. The fact that he will not prevail while McCain does should reinvigorate the entire debate over the meaning of “conservatism.”

Read more by Edward A. Olsen