Olympia Snowe’s op-ed on how the increasingly narrow and dogmatic conservatism of the Republican Party drove Arlen Specter from the fold is worth a read. But I think it’s noteworthy that she seems more interested in a rote recitation of the plight of socially moderate northeastern Republicans than she is in actually looking at the particulars of Specter’s situation. It’s true that Specter was nominally pro-choice. But for the past 15 years, he’s assembled a voting record that’s pretty orthodox. He led the charge on behalf of Clarence Thomas, he worked mightily for all of Bush’s judicial appointments, and he still says he’s eager to filibuster Dawn Johnson.
Indeed, what’s notable about the Toomey-Specter grudge match is that it’s not primarily about cultural issues, it’s primarily about Specter’s alleged deviations on economic policy.
More broadly in the intellectual arena, the orthodox conservative position has started to include controversial — and, frankly, false — claims about which things are problems. To be a conservative in good standing, for example, you’re supposed to join with Alan Reynolds in denying that inequality is increasing. You’re supposed to join with George Will and David Boaz in denying that climate change is happening. Basically, if you say that there are any problems in the United States other than high taxes, you’re out of the tent. That, much more so than the continued prominence of conservative social issues, constitutes a radical narrowing of the definition of “conservatism” from where it was 25–30 years ago.