Yesterday saw the end of campaigning in Iowa ahead of the caucuses there today. The race for the Republican nomination has taken some extraordinary twists so far with the candidates seemingly taking it in turns to top the opinion polls for a while, only to spectacularly fall away. But whilst Bachmann, Perry, and Cain have all taken the rollercoaster journey, the race now appears to be taking shape. Mitt Romney has consistently been there or there abouts. Newt Gingrich is on the slide but is still likely to gain considerable backing. Ron Paul’s libertarianism has been climbing slowly, while Rick Santorum has made a late surge as US social conservatives seek to rally behind someone in places like Iowa.
The unpredictability of the race has been attributed by many in the UK as evidence of the lack of a set of credible candidates. With Rick Perry and Herman Cain providing us with those sorts of gaffes, there is likely to be some truth in that. But this does not tell the full story. The conservative movement, as in the UK, is a broad church. Many of the splits and divisions reflect the underlying tensions - on both points of principle and policy – within that movement, which can be broadly represented as a fusion between libertarianism, social conservatism and neoconservatism. Finding a candidate, or ticket, that can unite this movement is much more difficult than David Cameron placating factions within the Conservative party by offering them seats at the cabinet table.
Small state conservatives, in particular the Tea Party movement, don’t like Mitt Romney’s healthcare reforms as Governor - the precursor to Obamacare. Liberal interventionists are petrified by what they see as Ron Paul’s isolationist foreign policy. Many evangelical Christians are unlikely to take kindly to Gingrich’s previous marital indiscretions, and are suspicious of Romney’s Mormonism. But yet, all are united in opposition to the record of Obama.
As the more moderate of the leading candidates, Romney looks best placed to win the nomination. And most commentators agree that he would be best placed to beat Obama in a Presidential race. But conservatives are suspicious of his flip-flopping on big issues in the past – a fact that Democrats are keen to exploit. The production of the video below perhaps exemplifies that they still fear the former Governor of Massachusetts the most.
Evidently, individual conservatives in the UK will have their own views on the points of policy and principle outlined above. Indeed, defining conservatism in the UK has been the scourge of many an author. The average conservative here does tend to be more socially liberal and less hawkish on foreign policy than many of our American colleagues. But to drill down more closely, I will instead examine who looks best placed to meet the core principles on which the CPS is founded. On this, three key criteria emerge: a POTUS who shares our critique of big government, one who values the ‘Special Relationship’ with the UK and someone actually capable in office.
From a British perspective, it seems imperative that we should support whoever is nominated against Obama. His presidency has certainly seen a deterioration in Anglo-American relations. Aside from the reaction to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, calling France the US’s strongest ally, undermining the UK’s position in Europe, getting rid of the Churchill bust from the Oval Office and giving Gordon Brown a gift of 25 DVDs, perhaps the most disappointing legacy of the current administration is its position on the Falkland Islands. In 2010, Hilary Clinton signed a resolution calling for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and the administration has also called the islands the ‘Malvinas’.
This blatant undermining of Britain falls into a wider foreign policy formula of Obama, who sees America’s future in new alliances with emerging countries, in particular in the Pacific. Some of the Republican candidates think similarly. Jon Hunstman, for example, has emphasised the need for a new relationship with countries in Latin America and the emerging countries. Given he was ambassador to China, this is perhaps unsurprising.
Ron Paul seems determined for the US to pursue an isolationist, non-interventionist foreign policy in the pursuit of ‘freedom’. His theory of ‘blowback’ is rich in intuitive appeal, but is too simplistic a model upon which to risk the security of the US and its allies. The reality is that almost all interaction of nations is determined by the path of history. He personally told a friend of mine that the UK would receive no more special sentiment from him than countries like Iran. The legacy of Reagan showed that strong foreign policy alongside like-minded allies can enhance rather than diminish freedom – as much of Eastern Europe would testify. Now is a particularly dangerous time for the US to give up its global role.
Mitt Romney has made some promising noises on this front. Whilst a cringe-worthy name, his support for a ‘Reagan Economic Zone’ for free-trade between nation-states that have embraced open markets is a more appealing conservative vision of the future than the current creep of multilateralism within international bodies. Pushing for economic freedom maintains the power of US influence without ‘nation building’. What’s more, Romney seems committed to renewing the special bonds that binds American to its traditional allies. A speech made by Rick Santorum in April suggested that he thinks along similar lines, with a fundamental rejection of Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ mantra, and a commitment to American exceptionalism.
UK conservatives should also hope that a Republican is elected in 2012 to advocate the free-market and a low tax, small government state. Thankfully, on this the Republicans are more united and see the US as being at a crucial juncture. They see an Obama success being likely to shift the US towards a Continental European style social democracy. They appear well aware that socialisation of policy is incredibly difficult to reverse, and are petrified of another term. That’s why they have all committed to significantly cutting government expenditure, and tackling the trend towards higher tax and more burdensome regulation.
Yes, some have gone much further than others. Paul has committed to $1 trillion of expenditure cuts and a return to the gold standard (though it seems likely that this would result in severe Congressional deadlock), whilst Romney’s economic plan is more limited to a directly targeted easing of the tax burden on the middle classes and repealing Obamacare. Perry and Huntsman had bold and exciting reforms for the personal tax system, though they seem to have little hope of victory now.
But the economic debate is much more advanced than here in the UK, where there has been little appetite to discuss the scope as well as the size of the state. This should be a wake-up call. The most recent World Economic Forum report placed the US 63rd of 142 for the damaging extent and effect of taxation, 96th for the total tax rate on profits and 58th for the competitiveness of government regulation. Meanwhile the UK is 94th, 61st and 83rd respectively – in a much worse competitive position. But a revived America following sound economic principles could provide the evidence base to enhance the case for a smaller state.
An assessment of the best candidate must weigh up all these considerations. Goal number one, whether you are a libertarian, neocon or social conservative, is surely to prevent an Obama second term. Renewed economic fortunes and a reversal from the creep of the big state, coupled with a renewal of alliances with countries based on shared principles would be ideal. On this basis, Romney seems the best hope. He’s not perfect and some of his policy actions in the past have not been very conservative. But he believes in the market, and is more likely to beat Obama than any other candidate.
As one American policy analyst put it to me, the Republican voters are currently engaged in a game where they try to follow WF Buckley’s advice and support the most conservative candidate who can win. They identify someone who they consider more conservative than Romney, and flirt with them until it becomes obvious that it is simply impossible for he/she to succeed. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Romney is the most capable conservative candidate – he’s the only one with sustained support and little baggage. If he gets the nomination, the movement must unite behind him – the opportunity cost of not doing so is too high.