What Does It Mean to Be Conservative, Anyway?

Michael Catalini

Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget became the House Republicans’ vision for the federal government’s spending priorities last week, but not all conservatives signed off on the legislation. In particular, the divergent votes among four Georgia Republicans, one who is officially running for the Senate in 2014 and three others who are considering it, offer a striking contrast that suggests a fissure among conservatives when it comes to policy preferences.

Rep. Paul Broun, known for suggesting that President Obama is a communist and who wrote a scathing op-ed inThe New York Times last week arguing the Ryan budget didn’t do enough to cut federal spending, voted against the House Republican budget. So did Rep. Phil Gingrey, who earned criticism after trying to explain former Rep. Todd Akin’s controversial comments on rape. But Rep. Tom Price, the Budget Committee vice chairman and former head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Jack Kingston, who has racked up a conservative voting record but has a more moderate image in the Peach State, voted for the budget.

If you ask the congressmen why they voted how they did, their answers are fairly simple: Either the budget cuts enough or it doesn't. For Broun and Gingrey, the Ryan budget doesn’t cut enough, doesn’t balance soon enough, and amounts to “nibbling around the edges."

"It fails to seriously address runaway government spending, the most pressing problem facing our nation," Broun wrote in his op-ed.

Gingrey’s gripe centered on Obama's health care law. The budget, he argued, did not defund the law and based on his experience as a medical doctor, he couldn’t in good conscience vote for the budget.

"I voted against the Ryan budget because it left the enormous Obamacare taxes in place," Gingrey said in a statement.

Price and Kingston, on the other hand, view the budget as "responsible."

"He would go further," said Kingston spokesman Chris Crawford. "But from his perspective it doesn't necessarily make sense to vote against something because it goes in the right direction, but not necessarily far enough in the right direction."

But with the prospects of a competitive primary after Sen. Saxby Chambliss's retirement in 2014, the split over the budget suggests that siding with House Republican leadership and Ryan, who helped lead the Young Guns movement that contributed to the conservative renaissance in 2010, is not enough.

"Since the losses in 2006 and 2008, which gave rise to the tea party and a more muscular grassroots movement for conservative change, people are hungering for fighters and hungering for people in the model of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul who are unintimidated and cannot be silenced,” said Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Georgia Republican.

Reed stopped short of saying that being conservative means you have to be to the right of Ryan. But he said it’s the more aggressive conservatives like Cruz and Paul who can win elections.

"I think that's where the momentum is now, where the center of gravity is," Reed said.

Merle Black, an Emory University professor who specializes in the conservative movement, pushed back against the notion, arguing that Price or Kingston would have no trouble proving their conservative credentials in a primary and that Georgia Republicans put Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson into office. Both Chambliss and Isakson have conservative voting records, but both also have courted compromise. Chambliss angered the tea-party base when he criticized an anti-tax pledge before the fiscal-cliff deadline in December, and Isakson has worked with Democrats such as former Sens. John Kerry and Kent Conrad.

"It’s also how you come across. You can be conservative on issues, but come across as reasonable and moderate," Black said.