Peter Wehner of Commentary recently criticized the "self-destructiveness" of purity tests employed by Tea Party types who refer to governors like Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie as “fake” conservatives.
I’m not even sure that’s a prevalent viewpoint. But it is inarguable that the populist right has tightened its standards. After years of Republican candidates saying one thing and doing another, conservatives have good reason to be skeptical. And, admittedly, there is often a reflexive anti-intellectualism on the populist right, due no doubt to the abuse that meddling technocrats have subjected Americans to over the years.
Wehner, though, misses an important point. He claims that the purity test imposed on Daniels would have disqualified Ronald Reagan as the latter signed liberal abortion legislation and raised taxes. It is more likely, though, that Reagan would not have passed the purity test of the Republican establishment. How would Reagan’s public detachment from policy specifics or his broadsides against intellectualism have gone over today? Probably as well as it did with the Republican establishment before 1980.
And doesn’t everyone use a purity test? Or maybe, a purity pop quiz? This includes writers at Commentary. Wehner often advocates purging conservatives he dislikes. Especially ones that irk his sensibilities with their aggressive tone. Wehner seems to value "civility" over many thing, even substance. In his 2008 Washington Post essay on why Republicans like Obama (“among the most impressive political talents of our lifetime”) we learn that the future president’s “ eloquence and uplift of his speeches, combined with his personal grace and dignity” make him so appealing. Apparently, falling for demagoguery is an intellectual position.
Most often, though, his grievances are aimed at libertarian-minded conservatives. Probably because neoconservatives –and I don’t use the word in its wide-ranging left-wing invective form – have one-issue purity test: W. Bush-style foreign policy. Would Wehner be suspicious of a candidate who had opposed enhanced interrogations or advocated for pulling out of Afghanistan? Would Wehner be suspicious of a politician who called for a truce with those who opposed Israel’s existence, even if their overall record on other conservative issues were sound? Probably. I know I would be.
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