What do Liberal – Conservative – Moderate Mean?

We take a hit now and then for pigeon-holing politicians as “conservative”, “liberal” or “moderate” when these days, all of those terms are perceived as pejoratives by someone along the ideological spectrum. With that in mind, here’s why we use those terms and what they mean to us.

There are many schools of thought regarding the way individual candidates should be viewed in terms of the ideological continuum from Radical Left to Reactionary Right. Labels often do not work because politicians, like the rest of us are human and do not always fit comfortably within the boxes we make for them.

For example, how would you interpret Mitt Romney’s variant views and beach shoe consistency on issues using the axial chart here.  This is one way WikiPedia.org tries to graphically explain the ideological spectrum.  There are other excellent examples in their article (click the picture to read it).  We adopted the simplified approach below; it is close to what most of us understand, and it is easier to be fair to all of the candidates, in our opinion.

Conservative: One who holds views, both in practice and in rhetoric that are conservative in all areas (foreign policy, national defense, economics and social ethics).

Liberal: One who holds views, both in pracice and in rhetoric that are liberal in all areas (foreign policy, national defense, economics and social ethics).

Moderate: One who holds views that are mostly conservative or mostly liberal, but vary significantly in one or more group of issues.

These are obviously political shorthand at best. For example, a “Moderate Republican” could be someone like Rick Perry who is conservative on social issues and most economic and foreign policy issues, but liberal on issues such as immigration, statist intervention and the like. To muddy the waters even more, if Perry had stayed in the Democrat party, he probably would not be considered a moderate — he would be a “Conservative Democrat”, or a “Blue Dog”.

Some candidates have little or no record, both rhetorically or practically in one or more areas, defying any definition of their ideology. Herman Cain, for example does not seem to have a coherant foreign policy record and what little he has said, indicate he is not knowledgeable enough to have a fixed view of things like the War on Terror, the Middle East, Islamism, the U.N. and similar issues. In all of the areas where he is a known quantity, Cain leans to the right. His blunt rhetoric and dry humor have muddied the waters on many issues. While the media claims he is unclear about whether he is pro-life or pro-abortion, Cain has maintained he is “100% pro-life from conception… period!” That hasn’t satisfied critics. As an individual, Cain has spoken for and donated significant amounts of money to pro-life causes. While he has not “voted on a single bill…” in favor of a pro-life position, he has voted with his money and his time in that cause. In the one notable foreign policy position where ideology can be discerned, Cain took the liberal view of releasing detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a single soldier. He later backpeddled on that one saying everyone who heard what he said took it out of context, a favorate save for career politicians (one of which he claims not to be).

So why did we peg the front runners in the GOP race the way we did? Because we can. It’s a free country. Because we’re biased and we’re trying to color how people see the race. Or maybe because this simple chart makes sense to us:

Romney — Liberal While much of his rhetoric claims a conservative mantle, he has defended many of his liberal governing approaches from the past. Romney has spent far more time on the liberal side of every major issue than on the conservative side, which he suddenly adopted just before filing his campaign papers in 2007. When pinned down on various issues, Romney has never given an explanation of the thought processes that took him from his radical leftist views when he was seeking the Massechussets Senate seat held by Teddy Kennedy to the time he served as governor. To simply say, “I was for Karl Marx before I was against him” doesn’t seem to resonate among the remnant of conservatives in the GOP base.

Perry — Moderate While he spent more time as a Democrat than as a Republican, virtually all of his views tend to be conservative by Democrat standards. His social conservatism pre-dates his Republican “conversion”. Perry recently switched from a lifelong affiliation with the left-leaning United Methodist Church to a more conservative Evangelical church, perhaps in anticipation of seeking higher office with support from the Religious Right… or maybe, he just felt more comfy in an Evangelical setting.

When the Establishment started flirting with Perry, their hope was that he could win over the skeptics on the right who did not trust Romney’s flip-floppery. Here, they thought, was a guy moderates could love but given his strong socially conservative background, he could win the trust of Evangelicals who at the time were supporting Michele Bachmann.

Bad choice. Perry’s bid began to fall apart from day one, mostly on the basis of his affection for illegals. The Perry open borders policy is a boon to business people in Texas, who are his major donor base. It is not popular among GOP rank and file who see illegals as a drain on taxpayers. The signature issue for Perry was his policy of giving in-state tuition breaks to illegals while charging the full rate to people from Oklahoma and other states. When his favoritism toward illegals was challenged in a debate, Perry chided his own party saying anyone who did not agree with his policy did not have a heart. When he couldn’t get his forced HPV immunization passed legislatively, he imposed it by executive order. Whatever one may think of the wisdom of this innoculation, it is never viewed among the conservative base as a positive factor for a political leader to impose by decree any policy on citizens without representation. If we wanted that, we could keep the current president, who has bragged that he doesn’t need Congress. Sorry, Messers Perry and Obama — the Constitution says we do.

Cain — Conservative (with caveats) On all of the issues where Cain has a record of practical action or rhetoric, he is a conservative along the lines of Ronald Reagan. That is to say, not perfect ideological purity but as close as one can get and still remain human. Even Barak Obama takes hits from his base for not being a “true progressive”. Obama has governed with the iron fist of his Soviet role models, but leftists are miffed that there are still pockets of our existence which are not taxed or oppressed by the heavy hand of government. The same is true for people like Herman Cain or previous flavor of the month, Michele Bachmann. They’re not purely ideologically conservative, but there are not enough liberal leanings to nudge either into the “moderate” category.

Gingrich — Moderate (with caveats) Newt is probably more practically conservative than all of the others in the GOP field, but for his inconsistency on things like taxes and economic recovery. He viciously attacked Paul Ryan’s economic recovery plan — the only practical idea out there at the time — as “right wing social engineering”. Many of his critics claim Gingrich has not checked his “baggage” — code for failed marriages, infidelity and erratic behavior. Face it, the man is a genius and he knows how to operate within the current political order. But as a pragmatist who would compromise on key principles in favor of getting things done, he would likely be a moderate.

We make no claims that these labels are in any way accurate or meaningful. However, for many establishment types who’s definition of conservatism and liberalism amounts to little more than name calling of sorts, we thought it fair to explain why Romney is a liberal in our view even though his script is filled with conservative sounding words. Romney, Perry and Cain all have strengths and flaws. Any of them would be a better leader than the current occupant of the Big Boy Chair. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking any of them is Ronald Reagan…. And even now, Romney apologists are claiming Reagan wasn’t Ronald Reagan either — and that he couldn’t be elected in the party he revitalized. Another liberal canard.

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