The 2016 GOP Race And The Battle To Define What ‘Conservative’ Means

Much more so than in the past, the race for the Republican Presidential race has become a battle to define what it means to be a 'conservative.' Especially on issues like immigration and national security, one side seems to be winning the battle.

Fourth Republican Debate Nov 10 2015

The race for the Republican nomination now seems to be coming down to a debate that has actually been going on inside the Republican Party for some time now, namely what it means to be a ‘conservative’ and what that means for the future direction of the Republican Party itself. If there is a such a debate going on, though, it already seems to be over:

MILWAUKEE — For months, the Republican presidential race has been animated by the party’s inchoate anger about the state of the country and an equally undefined hope that a candidate would emerge who could usher in an era of civic renewal. But the debate here and its aftermath marked an abrupt transition from vague promises about making America “great again,” in Donald J. Trump’s phrase, to a new season of the campaign shaped more by the glaring policy fissures that are dividing Republicans over what exactly to do about the nation’s problems.

From immigration and bank regulation to taxes and national security, the robust seminar on the issues that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday exposed a contentious dispute over what it means to be a conservative and offered a preview of the contours of the battle for the Republican nomination.

Years’ worth of arguments conducted at issues forums and in the pages of policy journals and newspapers are now coming to life. The Republican hopefuls are sparring over such high-fiber fare as tax policy: whether to adhere strictly to the party’s supply-side creed or move at least modestly toward policies aimed at bolstering lesser earners. They are clashing over the role America plays in the world, and whether fiscal conservatism is compatible with a drastically enlarged military.

Perhaps the starkest differences and the biggest battles of the election cycle so far has been on the issue of immigration, and it’s one that the immigration restrictionist wing of conservatism seems to be winning. In some sense, this is a battle that has been going on among Republicans for the better part of a decade that started when the Bush Administration, working together with Democrats in Congress and Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to pass the nation’s first comprehensive immigration reform package in two decades. Thanks in no small part to collapsing political support for President Bush due to the Iraq War, that effort fell apart without ever producing anything tangible. Part of the reason for its defeat, though, can be found in the rebellion on the right that even the suggestion of immigration reform created, fueled in no small part by talk radio and online activists who used their influence to get people to contact legislators to urge them to stop what they considered “amnesty” for people in the country illegally. As the party moved into the 2008 Presidential race, McCain’s support for some kind of immigration reform played a large role in the fact that his campaign nearly died on the vine. Even when McCain won the nomination, there were still a large number of conservatives who never forgave him and others in the so-called “establishment” who advocated for reform.

When the Tea Party and related groups began to gain power in the conservative movement and the Republican Party, the voice of the immigration restrictionists became louder, and more powerful. During the 2012 Presidential election, for example, Texas Governor Rick Perry came under attack for his opposition to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants and his support for a widely supported bipartisan measure in Texas that gave in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, who had previously been known as a relatively moderate conservative, found himself forced to advocate for ideas like “self-deportation” and to reject policy ideas that even came close to showing compassion. At the time, of course, and well after, there were some voices in the GOP such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio calling on the party to moderate its tone on immigration, a warning that became louder in the wake of a 2012 election defeat that included the lowest percentage of Latinos voting Republican in quite some time. In the Senate, Marco Rubio even followed through on his warnings by working across the aisle to create a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill.

If the events of the years that followed the 2012 election and, especially, the 2016 campaign to date have proven anything, though, it is that the restrictionists have only become more powerful inside the conservative movement. House Republicans did largely nothing in response to the passage of the Senate bill in 2013, and Marco Rubio largely repudiated his own efforts as he quietly prepared to run for President, a move that has only strengthened the suspicions that the restrictionists have about the Florida Senator. Meanwhile the rise of Donald Trump, who espouses views on immigration that Republican voters seem to largely agree with, has only intensified the efforts of other candidates to prove their own bona fides to the restrictionist wing of the party. In the battle between the restrictionists and those conservatives who favor a more open, sane, and fair immigration system, the restrictionists seem to have won the battle.

Another area where the 2016 campaign is showing a battle to define ‘conservatism’ is foreign policy:

It was not long ago that Republican foreign policy amounted to variations on a theme: Trade agreements bolster big businesses and international alliances. Military budgets should grow even in times of austerity. No matter what, do not let the Russians or the Chinese challenge American pre-eminence.

No longer. Tuesday’s debate underscored the schism among candidates whose rallying cry is “Let someone else fight the wars” and the American exceptionalists.

Mr. Trump and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky were clearly in the first camp. “If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it,” Mr. Trump said of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.

Then came Mr. Paul, ready to take on Mr. Kasich, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush, who talked of imposing and enforcing no-fly zones in Syria and Iraq, a position fairly close to the one described recently by Hillary Rodham Clinton. “When you think it’s going to be a good idea to have a no-fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes,” Mr. Paul said. “If you are ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq.”

The exchange captured the box that Republicans find themselves in when it comes to national security. Nothing fires up the base more than a description of President Obama as “weak,” and by extension Mrs. Clinton, his former secretary of state. But for the more traditional, hawkish candidates, that has usually meant issuing declarations of how they would use military force, with little discussion of other expressions of American power, like building alliances, tailoring economic sanctions or taking covert action.

But at a moment when polls show Americans are exhausted by 14 years of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the candidates seem unsure how to describe alliance-building in a way that could fire up Iowans.

There was a time when it really did seem like there was going to be strong foreign policy debate among conservatives. The failures of the Iraq War, the long war in Afghanistan that at some point changed from noble cause against al Qaeda to uncertain mission propping up a regime that didn’t seem to have much support outside Kabul, and Obama Administration actions in places such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria all combined to set the case made by the interventionist wing of conservatism back for some time. That fact was perhaps best exemplified by the rise of politicians such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has been perhaps the most effective spokesperson for a less interventionist foreign policy in the GOP for quite some time. At one point, Paul’s influence seemed to be rising so much that he was drawing unsolicited attacks from the likes of Chris Christie, Dick Cheney, Rick Perry, and John Bolton, and that was long before the 2016 election cycle even began.

As time has gone on, though, the foreign policy “battle” inside the has become fairly one-sided. For one thing, the rise of ISIS and the terrorist attacks that have gripped the world over the past year have shifted the debate away from non-interventionism and the costs of war toward combating terrorism. The consensus now seems to clearly be that the problem is that the Obama Administration hasn’t done enough, and even Senator Paul has shifted his messaging away from non-interventionism. The attacks in Paris on Friday are only likely to further shift the balance in favor of the interventionists. Notwithstanding some of the contrasts that were on display at the debate last Tuesday, in foreign policy as in immigration the debate inside conservatism on foreign policy seems to be largely over.

The linked article highlights other others where there are admittedly some contrasts between the candidates, such as tax policy, international trade, and other areas, but to a large degree it seems fairly clear where the “debate” over the direction of conservatism is headed, at least as far as the base of the Republican Party is concerned. Even if Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee, the immigration message he has adopted now dominates the rhetoric in the Republican Party to such an extent that it will be next to impossible for whomever the eventual nominee might be to repudiate it to any significant degree. This may well also extend to Trump’s positions on international trade and other issues where pro-market positions, rather than populist pandering, used to be the bellwether for conservatives. If there was a battle, then, it seems pretty clear that one side is winning. How that battle goes after 2016 if Republicans lose the White House for the fifth time in the last six Presidential elections is, of course, a question for another day.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Borders and Immigration, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jeremy R says:

    The Battle To Define What ‘Conservative’ Means

    These days it mostly means partisan political calculus (and political cowardice) above all else:

    The governors of Michigan and Alabama are now refusing to accept Syrian refugees following the terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris on Friday.

    UPDATE–10:34 a.m. ET: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted out an official statement on the state’s decision to refuse Syrian refugees.

    UPDATE–10:54 a.m. ET: Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted his intention to refuse Syrian refugees in his state.

    It’s beginning to look like the GOP has settled on this election cycle’s “Ebola-infected illegal immigrant terrorists”.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    This is what contemporary conservatism means to me:
    (1) Oppose everything that Obama seems to favor
    (2) Support anything that Obama seems to oppose
    (3) Burn it (federal or state government) down in order to save it
    (4) Fear, be fearful

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    How that battle goes after 2016 if Republicans lose the White House for the fifth time in the last six Presidential elections is, of course, a question for another day.

    Small quibble: they’ve already lost 5 of the last 6 elections. As it’s shaping up, they’ll lose 6 out of 7 in November. Republicans: Bush v. Kerry. Democrats: Clinton v. Bush*, Clinton v. Dole, Gore v. Bush*, Obama v. McCain, Obama v. Romney, Hilary v. Probably-Doesn’t-Matter-Who.

    *I know, Clinton didn’t win the popular vote in 92, but he did win the most votes of any of the three candidates, which is a far cry different than factually losing the popular vote, the way Bush II did against Gore.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It really is pretty simple. Pick an issue, any issue, and the Conservative position is always “Us v Them”. Every time. Oh, and any compromise is the same as surrender.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I really didn’t expect that to get thru the spam filter as it snagged some of my comments earlier this morn. As such, let me add that the “them” in that equation varies from issue to issue. In immigration, it us, the USA, v anyone from south of the border (Europeans are fine). In terrorism it’s us, the good Christians, v the evil Muslims. In tax policy it’s us, the rich/well off, v the people who are screaming about class warfare. In environmental policy it’s us, the job creators, v the environmental zealots. In crime… Well we already know how that one plays out. All you have to do is look at our prisons.

  6. Slugger says:

    For me the biggest difference between yesterday’s and today’s conservatives is in the area of civil rights, specifically the power of the police. Today’s conservatives appear to believe that you are obligated to obey a command from a cop and are tolerant of sanctions such as tazering and even gunfire if you don’t. ” He wouldn’t have been shot if he had just done what the cop told him,” is a phrase I have seen a thousand times in the past few years.

  7. Slugger says:

    For me the biggest difference between yesterday’s and today’s conservatives is in the area of civil rights, specifically the power of the police. Today’s conservatives appear to believe that you are obligated to obey a command from a cop and are tolerant of sanctions such as tazering and even gunfire if you don’t. ” He wouldn’t have been shot if he had just done what the cop told him,” is a phrase I have seen a thousand times in the past few years.

  8. James Pearce says:

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has been perhaps the most effective spokesperson for a less interventionist foreign policy in the GOP for quite some time.

    Just saying, the interventionists’ ascendance is testament to just how effective the “most effective spokesperson” has been on this topic.

    And yes, I’m aware I’m incredibly eager to pop the Rand Paul bubble every chance I get, but I tend to think Paul’s prominence, mostly due to his pedigree, tends to mask the fact that his foreign policy vision has no popular support from anyone, inside his party or out.

    He’s “the most effective spokesperson” because there are no others, and he’s not even that effective.

  9. Jeremy R says:


    A growing chorus of key Capitol Hill Republicans is urging President Barack Obama to halt the resettlement of thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States in the wake of the Paris terror attacks — and some lawmakers are threatening to use a must-pass spending bill next month to force the administration’s hand on the issue.

    The demands could significantly complicate the path toward the Dec. 11 deadline to pass the government-funding bill, raising the specter of a shutdown battle just before the end-of-year holiday season.

  10. Eric the OTB Lurker says:

    The race for the Republican nomination now seems to be coming down to a debate that has actually been going on inside the Republican Party for some time now, namely what it means to be a ‘conservative’ and what that means for the future direction of the Republican Party itself.

    As someone with literally day-to-day experience battling conservative family members and friends on any number of issues, conservatism appears to me to be defined simply as whatever you want it to be today, even if–or especially if–that position is the exact opposite of the position you took yesterday, just as long as you can score points against liberals with it today.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Eric the OTB Lurker: And at least in my circle of acquaintance, no recognition that their position has changed. “Weren’t you against a flat tax last month? No, I’ve always been at war with Eastasia in favor of a flat tax.”

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Bernie and Hillary and O’Malley have policy differences. Have you heard any of them say the others’ positions aren’t “liberal” of “progressive”? The press may say Hillary’s position isn’t as “liberal” as Elizabeth Warren’s. Warren might say Hillary’s too tight with Wall Street. Has she ever said Hillary isn’t liberal?

    Liberals argue about policy, conservatives argue about philosophy. That’s partly because they’re better off to avoid getting too deep into their policies.

  13. DrDaveT says:


    Liberals argue about policy, conservatives argue about philosophy.

    No, I don’t think that’s right. There used to be conservatives who argued philosophy — Edmund Burke, David Hume, G. K. Chesteron, even William F. Buckley Jr. They all died out.

    Today, the key difference between liberals and conservatives is whether they are working toward something or away from something.

    Liberals share a utopian vision of what society ought to be like, and are working toward it. They disagree about the best means to get there, and how to maintain progress that has been made, and what the most urgent priorities are, but there is no important disagreement about what constitutes ‘better’.

    “Conservative” is a catch-all term for those who reject that utopian vision. At best, they want to keep things just as they are now. At worst, they want a reversion to how things used to be, in a perceived better time. Not surprisingly, they tend to come disproportionately from historically privileged groups. Importantly, they can’t agree on what to do because the 31 flavors of conservatism are longing for a return to a different halcyon age. The religious conservatives want a return to the theocracy of the Pilgrims. The economic conservatives want a return to the Gilded Age, as do the wealthy. White men want a return to the days when women and non-whites knew their place. Libertarians want a return to a mythical Wild West. Jingoist hawks want a return to the days of the Big Stick. Etc.

    Historically, the only way to unite conservatives in common cause is to demonize an Other and get them all working against that demon. Abolitionists; suffragettes; trust-busters; alcohol; Jews; secular humanism; birth control; sex education; illegal immigrants; Islam; “The Government”… All of these are popular choices.

  14. Jeremy R says:

    David Vitter with the first campaign ad featuring footage from the Paris attacks:


    *sound of explosion*

    Voice Over: “One of the Paris ISIS terrorists entered France posing as a Syrian refugee. Now Obama’s sending Syrian refugees to Louisiana. David Vitter warned Obama the dangers of Syrian refugees weeks ago and promised as Governor no Syrian refugees will enter Louisiana. John Bel Edwards has promised to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Lousiana.”

    Bel Edwards: “I supported the President.”

    Voice Over: “He always does.”

  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @gVOR08: It’s simpler than that: Conservatives don’t have policies, they only have bromides.

  16. stonetools says:

    Cleek sorted out modern conservatives a while ago:

    Cleek’s Law

    Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

    I actually agree with DR Dave T. Conservatives are members of a salvation religion which aspires to returning America to a golden era that ended when America turned from the True Path. Conservatives are split as to when the departure occurred For some it was 1963, when the United States embarked on the Great Society reforms , particularly Civil Rights Act.For others the Great Apostasy occurred in 1933 with the New Deal. For still others, things went off the rails in 1913, with the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and the passage of the federal income tax.
    For conservatives, saving America means going back to the way things were pre -The Departure, when God was in his heaven, everyone was in their rightful place, and all was right with the world. Even where with Rubio, they talk of the future, their actual program really is about taking America back to some imagined past.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Confused. Clinton received 44,909,806 popular votes, against George Bush the Elder’s 39,104,550. He obliterated Bush in the popular vote.

  18. Kylopod says:


    Liberals argue about policy, conservatives argue about philosophy.

    You make some good points in your post, but I agree with DrDaveT that “philosophy” isn’t quite the word to describe the who-is-a-true-conservative phenomenon (and it’s a bit ironic given the round of philosophy-bashing at the GOP debates). I think Noah Berlatsky hit the nail on the head a while back when he compared it to fanboy culture:

  19. Kylopod says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I noticed this but I was reluctant to make a nitpick on a nitpick. Obviously Neil was confusing “winning the popular vote” with “winning a majority of the popular vote.”

  20. Neil Hudelson says:


    Only that he didn’t win even close to a semblance of 50% of the vote.

  21. David Francis says:

    It will create no difference to me of what the mainstream press publishes, to hopefully crush Donald Trumps meaningful race towards the White House. All I know is that my conviction goes to Donald Trump, whereas the others who stand behind the dais at every potential nominee performance either slips intently through the loophole on illegal immigration. When questioned most say almost nothing about the illegal alien incursion, except for Ted Cruz.? As a second choice Senator Cruz gets my vote, as like Trump speaks his mind on any stage, but additionally before of the full House of Representatives. I am very leery of any of the others, who most cannot answer a straight forward question on this human curse, that is swallowing a cornucopia of welfare benefits that should be flowing to our citizens/Lawful residence and more so our Seniors, Veterans and truly honest low income families. It’s a very sly invasion by the non-admission parents who arrive with children, or pass them off as orphans and infiltrate America from every nation in the world. These are not undocumented immigrants/ immigrant or anything else but–foreign nationals or ILLEGAL ALIENS.

    Another thing is King Obama does not have the right under Article I, Section 8, clause 4 of the Constitutions to direct immigration. At that time the Articles called Immigration–naturalization and the only the Congress had the power to write the naturalization laws, not the President of these United States.

    The battle will commence over Birthright Citizenship (14th Amendment) and could be dismissed by the Supreme Court, but it’s worth the state prosecutors to hopefully get the case heard. However nobody could guess on the outcome, as through the laws according to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights must be interpreted correctly, but this isn’t always the judgment of the courts; it doesn’t necessary mean the judges will follow prior laws. If Donald Trump does become the nominee and his race to the White House is not stealthily rigged from the time of the Iowa caucuses onwards, then as Commander in Chief he can use Presidential privilege, to proceed with the mass deportation which would be a costly affair, especially if there is an alternative? Dismissal within the high judiciary cannot be applied to MANDATORY E-VERIFY as the Rule of Law?

    As of this time there is no mandated E-Verify, as it’s up to the states how they operate it? Corporate and industry didn’t like its apparent objective, so the politicians who approved it were bought by the rich donors by investing in their campaigns? Mandated E-Verify ends with certainty, no access to CHEAP LABOR, and so the few states that observe it as mandated law saw it as a lost cause. This proposal is essential to fortifying immigration enforcement and the Donald Trump wall.

    MANDATORY E-Verification should be set up right now on a huge scale, with the necessary recruitment of an army of ICE agents to audit businesses around the country. Every company or workplace entity should be treated the same with no exceptions, from largest corporate factory to the landscape workers. Trumps wall is a good beginning and stop wholesale movement across the Southern border to end the drug, gun, and illegal alien traffickers with the assistance of the Border Patrol or even the National Guard. This is a time of imminent danger for our nation as it’s not secure and will eventually be attacked by Muslim radicals. It is not “if” it is when ISIS, or any other terrorist organizations comes this way.

    King Obama is gives the impression to be lying low from all the critics, as if he has some secret agenda relating to our domestic and foreign policies. This man just follows through on everything that is negative to our nation. It is beyond me that Congress has not collecting signatures to impeach this man, WHERE IS THE BACKBONE FOR ALL THESE POLITICAL LEADERS TO END THIS PRESIDENTS IMPERIAL REIGN FROM DRIVING AMERICA INTO MORE DEBT, Allowing criminal war combatants from their incarceration in GITMO, Cuba and place them in US penitentiaries. The issues keep confronting him and he walks away from him as if they don’t exist. Probably very dangerous Muslim extremist are already here because of lour already slack borders and no serious exit/entry digital tracking system at any ports?

    Doesn’t seem odd that King Obama didn’t journey to France, when delegates of many foreign countries flew in to offer their condolences?

    Although Americans maybe sympathetic and passionate for the strife of the Syrian people, it makes no sense to add more welfare recipients to the illegal alien invaders already pouring in owing to Obamas executive orders. We already have 1000 of criminal aliens being let loose around us, without any indication of where the Bureau of Prisons dropped them off? As to the refugees It seems to me more plausible to send shipments of food, tent shelter and cold hard cash to the charities over in there country of origin, instead of taking them out of their environment. The CIA and security organizations says they have no possibility of investigating any of these individuals, as personal records are none existent over in that part of the middle east. This is a risky as any man or women could be a fanatical religious crazy as we have no way of knowing who they are? These butchers are human time bombs and don’t care if they live or die for there abhorrent, fixated cause.

  22. Bill Lefrak says:

    FYI, the same sorts of ideological battles were waged in 2012, 2008, 2000, 1996, 1988, 1980, 1976, 1968 and perhaps most famously in 1964.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @David Francis: Sorry, but only according to the Platonic ideal of the Constitution you have in your mind.

    The Supreme Court of the United States sees differently.