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What’s a Conservative?

February 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ALAN KEYES: Where have all the conservatives gone? We have folks standing up here who follow Clinton’s policies on free trade, follow his policies on Social Security, follow his policies in other areas and still want us to believe that they’re conservatives. One adopted an approach to campaign finance reform that violates our fundamental rights as citizens. I think it’s time we got back to real conservatism.

TERENCE SMITH: From the early days of the Republican presidential campaign, Alan Keyes and the other candidates have been wrapping themselves in the solid cloth coat of conservatism. In New Hampshire, George W. Bush, Steve Forbes and John McCain squabbled about their conservative credentials, using the size of their proposed tax cuts as litmus tests.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think it’s conservative in good times to put money into Social Security. It’s conservative to pay down the debt. And it’s conservative, clearly, to try to save Medicare, and at the same time give these tax breaks to American families, including making that tax flatter up and up and up.

STEVE FORBES: I’m an independent outsider. The Washington special interests have no hooks in me. I’ve got the conservative principles: Getting rid of this tax code and allowing you to keep more of what you earn.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I am a tax-cutting person. I know how to get it done. I have laid out a plan that is going to cut the rates on everybody in America, a plan that is conservative and a plan that is compassionate.

TERENCE SMITH: At the same time, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer said the real test was an adherence to social issues, like an anti-abortion stance.

GARY BAUER: I’m going to do, as president, whatever I have to do to end abortion on demand. This is the premiere moral issue of our time. If we don’t get this right, we’re not going to get anything right. We are destroying 1.5 million children a year. We’ve been doing that for 27 years. America is better than this. And I would just add that Governor Bush said this week that he thought “Roe vs. Wade” was “a reach.” Governor, a reach? One and a half million children a year? It’s a darned sight more than a reach. It’s a national tragedy. My judges will be pro-life, and abortion on demand will be over in my administration.

TERENCE SMITH: In the wake of his defeat in New Hampshire, George W. Bush retreated to the ideological safe ground: the conservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. To eliminate any doubt about his preferred label, he used the “C” word more than a dozen times in just under two minutes in his speech.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: You know what the good news is? We share the same conservative values, the same conservative principles. We can speak in one voice to America.

TERENCE SMITH: Even Gary Bauer, whose brief and unsuccessful campaign was rooted in his Christian conservative credentials, took some credit for the trend as he bowed out.

GARY BAUER: All of my competitors are trying the best they can, with rhetorical flourishes, sometimes right out of my speeches, to sound very conservative. I have been very flattered by that. I think I have been a leader in all of this.

TERENCE SMITH: As the Republican field has narrowed, the two front runners are still arguing about who’s the conservative, as seen in their recent paid television commercials.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I guess it was bound to happen. Governor Bush’s campaign is getting desperate with a negative ad about me. The fact is, I’ll use the surplus money to fix Social Security, cut your taxes, and pay down the debt. Governor Bush uses all the surplus for tax cuts, without one new penny for Social Security or the debt. His ad twists the truth like Clinton. We’re all pretty tired of that. As president, I’ll be conservative and always tell you the truth, no matter what.

AD SPOKESMAN: John McCain’s ad about Governor Bush’s tax plan isn’t true and McCain knows it. McCain’s economic advisor says he’d support Bush’s plan: $2 trillion to protect Social Security, pay down debt and a real tax cut. McCain’s plan? A tax cut smaller than Clinton’s, and not a penny in tax cuts for 30 million Americans. On taxes McCain echoes Washington Democrats. When we need a conservative leader to challenge them — Governor Bush: Proven, tested, and ready to lead America.

TERENCE SMITH: So if the campaign was reduced to quiz-show terms, the question would be: Will the real conservative please stand up?