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How I Joined the Vast RINO Conspiracy

September 9th, 2010 at 2:44 pm | 51 Comments |

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I don’t recall any secret initiation rites or mysterious handshakes, stuff but I once was a member in good standing of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. How then did I become a so-called Republican in Name Only — a dreaded RINO, by the right’s current lights?

Having been involved in political journalism (as well as economic journalism and science journalism) for about two decades, I’m inclined to look back and try to figure out what’s changed in the last couple of years. Is it me, the right, or both?

“Libertarian conservative” is a label that I think fits my politics pretty well. The term was popularized by William Safire and derided by George Will, who likened it to “promiscuous celibate.” I think it’s a useful term; it means you’re a libertarian who’s skeptical of absolutism and radicalism in free-market thinking, and it means you’re a conservative who’s particularly interested in conserving liberty.

Having voted for Republicans since I first registered as one in the early 1980s, I made an exception in 1992 by voting for Andre Marrou, the Libertarian candidate. Tax-hiking George H.W. Bush was not free-market enough for me. By the early ‘90s, I was contributing to Commentary, Insight, City Journal and other conservative magazines.  “Clintonomics Could Pump Up Inflation” was the headline of a not atypical article I wrote at that time (and, in that case, I was wrong).

There were growing fissures between self-identified libertarians and self-identified conservatives in the ‘90s. With the economy booming, social issues came more to the fore, and differences within the right became more visible. I considered myself on the libertarian side of that divide, having only limited affinity for a social conservative agenda. In 1999, for instance, I wrote a cover story for Reason castigating various conservatives for embracing an ill-considered religious interpretation of recent physics (and, in that case, I think I was right; at least, I’m glad the word “anthropic” rarely comes up in conservative circles these days).

The George W. Bush administration, to my mind, was disappointingly low in both libertarian impulses and administrative competence. Nevertheless, I voted for Bush twice, considering him better than the Democratic alternatives and thinking he was right on the crucial matter of not accepting defeat in Iraq. In 2008, I was a John McCain supporter, seeing little appeal in dogmatic, conspiracy-minded Ron Paul or, later, quixotic Libertarian Bob Barr. In one of the Debates at Lolita Bar events held in a saloon basement in Manhattan, I had the pleasure of criticizing Barr in the candidate’s presence.

The above history, including my vote for Sarah Palin to be vice president, would seem to attest to my being a right winger, albeit an eclectic one. But in the era of Barack Obama, I may no longer qualify. Here are a few positions I now hold that, insofar as I understand prevalent thinking on the right these days, put me into RINO territory:

I think global warming poses serious dangers and needs to be addressed. Much current thinking on the right is that global warming either isn’t real, isn’t anthropogenic or isn’t worth worrying about. I never was a full-on climate change skeptic, though I did long suspect the problem was overblown. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly convinced it’s not overblown.

Paradoxically, the “Climategate” matter helped convince me of this, as it was seized upon by many right wingers as demonstrating some kind of scientific scam when in fact nothing of the sort had been demonstrated.

I favor a carbon tax. I think such a tax is justified on environmental, fiscal and national-security grounds. While I’m not the only right-leaning type who’s said this, it’s a position that places me at odds with mainstream thinking on the current-day right, particularly if one gives any emphasis to climate change as a reason for such a measure. And while I would favor a more straightforward tax over a cap-and-trade plan, I would favor the latter over nothing. Republican willingness to take legislative action on this issue is close to nil, and Democrats in Congress have punted on the issue anyway.

I favor some government economic activism over free-market solutions. In the last several years, I’ve written a regular feature on financial history for Research, a magazine for financial advisors. In this work, it has become clear to me that less government was not always the right answer —for example, that Alexander Hamilton was right in expanding the federal government’s role in finance and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo was correct to intervene in markets upon the First World War’s outbreak. Nor for that matter does my reading of history suggest that anything Ron Paul says about the Fed, the gold standard or what the 19th-century economy was like merits being taken seriously.

I could go on, pointing out for example that I don’t think Sarah Palin would be a good president (and please don’t compare her to Ronald Reagan, who served two complete gubernatorial terms and wrote well-informed commentary for many years) and that I do in fact think the Tea Party’s railing against “tyranny,” “slavery” and “socialism” is overwrought blather. But I trust the point is made that I’m out of step with much of the right.

That’s partly because my views have moderated on some issues, but it’s also in significant part because the right at the moment has little patience for moderation. For my part, I’d say I’m still a libertarian conservative overall, and that it’s also fair to say I’m center-right. If that makes me a RINO, then I suspect there are more RINOs out there than hard-line conservatives want to think about.

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