LAS VEGAS – George W. Bush ran for president as a compassionate conservative just a decade ago, but it seems like forever. We're now into an era of what might you might call Darwinian conservatism -- a fend-for-yourself philosophy advanced by people who are skeptical about federal help, at least for others.
Republican Senate candidates across the country, many of them non-incumbents powered by a Tea Party fusion of conservatives and libertarians, seem to yearn for the America of pre-Depression days, when there was no federal safety net.
What would their country be like? Two say the federal government should not be setting a minimum wage
and two others have said it should not run programs like Social Security
. At least two challengers have said unemployment benefits are bad for the unemployed
, making them lazy
when they should be taking low-paying jobs.
And that's just the Senate. Gubernatorial candidates (some Democrats as well as Republicans) are competing over who would crack down harder on illegal immigrants.
Republican Carl Paladino, running for governor of New York, says children shouldn't be "brainwashed
" into thinking being gay is as "valid" as being straight. "It's not," he said, days after a gay teenager had committed suicide and attackers tortured three men they believed to be gay.
"Some of these people may get swept in with the tide, but they don't reflect where the country is," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and strategist. He predicted "callous conservatism" would have an outsize influence on the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process, and in a negative way. "It damages the brand," he said.
Bush's "compassionate conservative" tag was meant as a signal to moderates, and he had real policies and positions to back it up. They included immigration (he pushed hard for a comprehensive approach that would have given some 12 million undocumented immigrants a way to earn citizenship); AIDS (he spent tens of millions of dollars to fight the disease in Africa); education (he called it "the civil rights issue of our time" and expanded school and teacher accountability under the No Child Left Behind law); and health (he added a new prescription drug benefit to Medicare, paid for with borrowed money).
You could argue, as many conservatives do, that Bush's signature initiatives were not conservative because they expanded the size, reach and cost of government, and swelled the federal budget deficit. You could also argue that his big push for private Social Security accounts did not display empathy toward risk-averse workers of modest means, who did not want to bet their retirements on the stock market. Bush's privatization drive failed, but many of this year's Republican Senate candidates -- 14 by Democrats' count -- have taken up the banner.
James Pinkerton, who writes a blog on health policy
, said Republican rhetoric has changed since he was a policy aide for Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, in the White House. The elder Bush called for a "kinder, gentler" country, installed self-described "bleeding-heart conservative" Jack Kemp as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (one of the laws that Paul says overreaches).
"Some of these Tea Partiers have an extremely unrealistic view of what's possible," Pinkerton said. "They're talking the language of reading a book in the library, or how to win a Republican primary." He noted, correctly, that some GOP candidates such as Nevada's Sharron Angle are now trying to walk back
earlier positions. If they're elected, he said, they could be a force for constructive, creative budget-cutting.
She has also said she would not have intervened
to save 22,000 jobs
at CityCenter, a huge new complex on the Las Vegas Strip. Her Democratic rival, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, called the bankers, they extended financing, and the project was completed. Though Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country, she declared Thursday at the pair's only debate, "Harry Reid: It's not your job to create jobs."
At a time of two wars, when thousands of veterans are returning with terrible mental and physical problems, Angle also has signaled that she's interested in privatizing the veterans' health care system
. That has spooked Johnathan Abbinett, 57, a disabled combat veteran who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, and now is active in Democratic Party politics in Nevada. "I risked my life -- I sweated, I cried, I bled for America," he said. "And the promise is, I get my health care."
Angle has also provoked advocates for people with autism by belittling a new Nevada law requiring insurance companies to cover early treatment for autistic children. "You're paying for things that you don't even need. . . . Everything that they want to throw at us now is covered under 'autism,' " Angle said at a 2009 Tea Party rally
, making air quotes with her fingers as she said the word. "So, that's a mandate that you have to pay for. How about maternity leave? I'm not going to have any more babies, but I sure get to pay for it on my insurance. Those are the kinds of things that we want to get rid of."
Autism advocates say early intervention makes a big difference in people's lives and functionality, and can greatly reduce the projected $3.2 million cost of lifetime care. "Free markets are great, but when we looked around Nevada, there was no way insurance companies were going to cover children with autism if we didn't step in with a mandate," assemblyman James Ohrenschall, the bill's sponsor, told me. "I think it will be cost-effective to society as a whole."
Mark Olson, whose teenage daughter Lindsey is autistic, said Angle has a fundamental lack of knowledge of how insurance works. "She doesn't understand the concept of a pool. It's frightening for a senator," he said, adding: "If she and the Tea Party are so offended by being in a pool of coverage, there's another solution for them. It's called cash. She only has to pay for exactly what she needs treatment for."
Asked during the Senate debate if there was any condition insurance companies should be required to cover, Angle said no. But she has not stuck to this principle in the past. The Las Vegas Sun reported that as a state legislator, she co-sponsored five bills to mandate various types of insurance coverage
. Nor can Angle claim the high ground when it comes to dependence on government -- her husband, a retired Bureau of Land Management employee, gets a federal pension and federal health insurance, as Reid pointed out.
Angle is not the only candidate who both denounces and relies on the government. Government aid
has flowed to a company owned by Wisconsin's Ron Johnson. Miller received federal subsidies
for farmland he owned in Kansas. Paul, an ophthalmologist with many patients on Medicare, wants the government to cut spending -- but not Medicare reimbursements
. "Physicians should be allowed to make a comfortable living
," he said.
There's nothing wrong with any of that, if only the recipients would acknowledge that other people are no less deserving of government help and protection. Alternatively, they could stick to the principle that the feds should stay out of the aid business, whether it's for the jobless, the elderly, farmers, corporations or themselves. But is that what we really want? "It all comes down to selfishness or selflessness," said Abbinett, the disabled veteran. This year's anti-government candidates, almost all of whom have jobs, money, health insurance and good educations, should consider his words.
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(This story has been updated since initial publication to add that Johnathan Abbinett is active in Democratic Party politics.)