The conservative movement has, for decades now, been resting its laurels on a metaphor attributed to Ronald Reagan: the famous three-legged stool. For the uninitiated, Reagan believed that conservatism had three legs — fiscal issues, national security issues and social issues — all of which were integral to maintaining the whole. Over the years, conservatives have frequently — and mistakenly — used it to admonish those who they believe aren’t sufficiently conservative on any of the three issues.
Lately, the Republican establishment has been using this metaphor as a cudgel against the burgeoning libertarian wing of the party. Both social conservatives and neoconservatives have attacked libertarians for failing to live up to this ideal. They have attacked libertarians not because they actually care about these issues, but because they see in the rise of the libertarian wing a threat to their own power and influence, and maintaining that is more important to them at the end of the day than electing Republicans. If they want to be kings of their own silos, let them.
The Republican Party would do well to ignore the advice of these self-serving, self-appointed arbiters of conservatism. The truth of the matter is that the individuals who have criticized libertarians for supposedly abandoning the three-legged stool are themselves guilty of the same sin, and so are the factions they represent. For years, many Republicans have showed a willingness to expand government when it suited their particular agenda. In essence, they abandoned one leg of the stool — fiscal conservatism — to prop up the other two, social issues and national defense. It is their dishonesty on fiscal conservatism that has brought us to where we are today, with the rise of a new generation of candidates, activists and voters who truly believe in fiscal responsibility.
However, a focus on fiscal issues does not mean an abandonment of social issues or national security, as its critics contend. What it does mean is that we must now view those other legs through the lens of fiscal responsibility. One can be socially conservative without believing the government should be spending money on those issues; after all, haven’t we learned from liberals that throwing money at a problem isn’t a solution? One can believe in a strong national defense while believing that there’s plenty of wasteful spending in the defense budget. Neither of these things are mutually exclusive with fiscal responsibility.
After years of neglect, it was only natural that the Republican Party would find itself refocusing on fiscal conservatism and small government. We don’t need Republican spending instead of Democratic spending; we need less spending. We don’t need Republican taxes instead of Democratic taxes; we need lower taxes. Republican big government is no better than Democratic government.
The true legacy of Ronald Reagan was one of inclusion, not exclusion. He had another saying about politics: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” He was always pleased to welcome new people into the conservative movement. Indeed, Reagan was able to bring more people into conservatism than any single other figure in the 20th century.
It is long past time for the GOP to actually heed the words of Ronald Reagan, who believed in a large and diverse conservative movement, not a small and narrow-minded one. It is only by focusing on those issues that unite us as a party that we are able to remain one entity, rather than dissolve into bitter factions. It is absolutely vital that Republicans do so, because the country is headed towards fiscal ruin, and it is the GOP that can steer a new course and avert that disaster.