Conservative voters have a message for the Republican establishment: Not so fast. The Washington-knows-best GOP insiders who gave us John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush are now pushing Mitt Romney. Conservative voters are pushing back. Hard.
Self-described conservatives outnumber liberals in America 2-1 - 42 percent to 21 percent, according to Gallup polling - so it's no surprise that Republican candidates describe themselves as conservative. Heck, even Barack Obama once described former president and New Dealer Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr. Big Government himself, as an "economic conservative." (Of course, compared to himself, President Obama is almost right, but that's another matter.) Yet, for all these "conservatives," our out-of-control government continues to metastasize into every area of our lives, from choosing our light bulbs to choosing our doctors.
The word "conservative" is at risk of losing its meaning. Liberals like Mr. Obama have launched a calculated assault on the word, falsely claiming the mantle in an effort to disguise their march toward statism. What's far worse, however, is when conservatives - or at least people who genuinely believe themselves to be so - erode conservatism from within.
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," said French poet Charles Baudelaire. The greatest trick statists could ever pull would be convincing the voters they are conservatives.
Witness columnist Ann Coulter, who until recently was an unapologetic voice for the conservative principles of limited government and the free-enterprise system. There's a conservative case to be made for Mr. Romney, at least for his recent conversion to conservatism, but Ms. Coulter instead chooses to undercut conservatism to benefit her candidate. She claims that Romneycare, the blueprint for Obamacare, the most dramatic lunge toward socialism in our lifetime, is "a massive triumph for conservative free-market principles."
Does she have any idea the damage she does to the conservative cause with those words? Shielded by the Coulter seal of approval for government-run universal health care, liberals will have little problem labeling as "conservative" any of their statist agenda - from food stamps to free mortgages.
Fortunately, voters in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado were not willing to toss aside their conservative principles quite so easily. They understand that if Ann Coulter's (and Mitt Romney's) notion, that government-run health care can somehow be considered conservative,is allowed to stand, then conservatism as we know it is dead. We might as well change our name to the European States of America and get in line for government cheese and four-day workweeks.
This is not to say there are no differences between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama. There are, and they are substantial. Mr. Romney can be moved toward America's founding conservative principles and Mr. Obama cannot. Of course, if Ms. Coulter or anyone else convinces Mr. Romney that he's already a conservative and Romneycare proves it, then we're in deep trouble.
Neither of Mr. Romney's two conservative challengers, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, has an unblemished record, but nonetheless, they do have solid conservative credentials. Both have at least made attempts to atone for previous statist positions, while Mr. Romney, in contrast, bitterly clings to Romneycare.
This amounts to surrendering to the president on his single most vulnerable issue. Moreover, Mr. Romney may not realize it, but he already has begun surrendering on Mr. Obama's favorite issue of all: class warfare. The president's re-election strategy is to turn Americans against each other and then harness that resentment into votes. Mr. Romney plays right into Mr. Obama's hands by creating his own divisions of the classes with separate sets of rules for each.
Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum refuse to play on the president's "99 percent" rhetoric turf. Instead, they rightly scold the president, who should be serving 100 percent of Americans. They understand that dividing Americans is not only inherently wrong but is also the premise for expanding an already bloated government.
The conservative candidates also reject the statist notion of a permanent underclass in need of an ever-enlarging entitlement state. In their own words, Mr. Gingrich wants to turn the safety net into a trampoline, and Mr. Santorum wants to extend the ladder of success to the very poor. Meanwhile, Mr. Romney, in his own words, wants to be the president who repairs the holes in the safety net. Conservatives should aspire to expand the opportunity society. Anything less is simply managing America's decline.
Despite Mr. Romney's current lead in the primaries, he just cannot seem to close the sale. He has amassed nearly 1.2 million votes, but his two conservative rivals cumulatively have received more than 1.4 million. If the former governor would like to reach out to the conservative Republican base, I suggest he start by finally acknowledging the obvious: Government has no business interposing itself between you and your doctor. He should begin his Romneycare mea culpa with these three words: I was wrong.
Ann Coulter may want to join him.
Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a radiologist and President Obama's cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.