So it seems George W. Bush is not really conservative.
Nor are Mitt Romney, John McCain and, indeed, the vast majority of the Republican Party. Or so I'm told by a number of readers who took exception to a recent column lambasting Mr. Romney for his speech at the GOP convention. In it, Mr. Romney declared that the way to fix Washington is to turn it over to conservatives. If you didn't know any better, said I, you'd think conservatives had not been in charge most of the last decade. This kind of babblespeak, I argued, has become increasingly characteristic of the political right.
Except, according to my correspondents, those conservatives in charge weren't really conservative at all. As Roy from Sanger, Calif., put it in an e-mail: "If you believe what we have had in D.C. so far this century is a conservative Washington, your perceptions are colored by a memory loss of what real conservatism looks like. Bring back to life 'real' conservatives who died before 1996, and they would think only one party ruled in D.C. now, the tax and spend, spend and spend some more party."
The funny thing is, I agree. Stack the traditional definition of "conservative" alongside the events of the last few years, and it's hard not to. It is, for example, difficult to find evidence of government getting out of people's way in the Terri Schiavo affair. Or evidence of lean, mean government efficiency in the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Or evidence of fiscal restraint in a projected $500 billion budget deficit. Or evidence of foreign policy pragmatism in the invasion of a country that had not attacked us and did not threaten to. Or evidence of accountability in the eagerness to duck blame for all the above.
Conservatism, an ideology once driven by principle, has shrunk until its purview can be, and often is, delineated in three syllables: God, guns, gays. Worse, it has embraced a win-at-all-costs ethos and intellectual dishonesty that are, even by the seamy standards of modern politics, astonishing.
To pick just one of many available illustrations: Last month, Karl Rove praised the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate, citing, among other things, her two long years as governor of Alaska and her experience as mayor of Wasilla, which has a population smaller than some apartment complexes. This came a few weeks after Mr. Rove said Tim Kaine was unfit to be Sen. Barack Obama's running mate because he, Mr. Kaine, had been governor of Virginia "only" two years, before which he was mayor of Richmond - which, with about 200,000 residents, is "not a big town."
Now, I don't care what your ideology is: You cannot, if you've got half a brain, define that as anything but hypocrisy. And if true conservatives hate seeing that kind of duplicity associated with conservatism, I understand. But I have a question for them: Where have you been the last 15 years? Where were you when conservatism was untethered from principle, unhooked from reality? Where were you when it became smug and self-righteous, when it traded its integrity for situational outrage, its credibility for angry certitude, its honor for ballot box success? Where were you when it sold out to evangelicals and anti-intellectuals? Where were you when it got hijacked?
American Muslims are often challenged to speak out against extremists in their religion, but for my money, that challenge can more fairly be leveled at those people Roy calls real conservatives. They sat silent as their principles were discarded, as their very name was stolen and used to drive the country off a cliff. I hope e-mails like Roy's mean their long silence is about to be broken, but I have some advice for him and anyone else who doesn't think the Republicans are truly conservative:
Don't tell me. Tell the Republicans.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.