What's Happening in Conservatism?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of the National Review and author of Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, weighed in on Republican politics and the Right's guiding philosophies.

Climate change-up

Most of the pieces are in place for the Republican nomination contest, and by now it's clear that the conservative ideological landscape is not the same as it was in 2008, or at any time under George W. Bush. Enthusiasm for military intervention is waning and many candidates find themselves running from policies they and other members of the party once embraced.

In the last election, for example, John McCain proposed cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming. Now, both "cap-and-trade" and "global warming" are four-letter words on the right. Richard Brookhiser chalked the shift up to increased skepticism about climate change science, as well as higher energy bills resulting from efforts to rein in carbon dioxide.

Conservatives have seen with alarm their efforts to use global warming as an instrument of industrial policy and reshaping industrial policy, imposing regimes of taxes and regulations to try and settle this worldwide. That's the kind of thing that tends to align conservatives.

Romney vs. Romneycare

No candidate has more to run from than Mitt Romney, who instituted a health care overhaul while governor of Massachusetts that looks a lot like the legislation signed by President Obama. Brookhiser conceded that he doesn't know how Romney could overcome that liability.

Poor Romney, that's the millstone around him. He's a very attractive candidate in a lot of ways, but he kind of looks like the John the Baptist of the Obama health care plan. How he deals with that will be an interesting tale.

But Brookhiser also said he could envision a scenario in which Mitt could untangle Romneycare and Obamacare.

Romneycare, however good or bad it was, that was just in Massachusetts, and now we have it in all 50 states. The dimensions of the problem are very different; it's not just the politics of it, it's the scope and the affect on the entire country.

Combat fatigue

In perhaps the biggest pendulum shift from the last decade, conservatives are increasingly exhausted by wars in the Middle East. Thirst for retaliation in Afghanistan and preemption in Iraq have given way to anxiety over Libya. Is this a real sea change, or are conservatives only enthusiastic about wars when their president is in the White House?

Richard Brookhiser admitted uncertainty among the conservative base, but stressed that the Bush wars were of greater strategic significance than the conflict in Libya. Moving forward, he said, it's the big picture for the Middle East that we need to think about, not just the dictator of the day.

Is this a war to be won by improving or changing political culture in Middle East?...Conservatives have to look at that and see how would you affect such a thing, what are steps toward it, how do you go about doing this? Or is it the way to go at all?...You can't advance on all fronts at once. You have to see which ones are the most important ones, and you have to pick your battles. We need a lot more strategic thinking about that.