Charlie Harper: What does that word even mean?

February 22, 2013 

National Journal has released its rankings of the most conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Georgia's Austin Scott was ranked second on this list for 2012. Given that their number one choice, Todd Akin, is no longer serving due to his failed attempt to become a senator, Scott can be said to be the most conservative member of Congress at this point.

Unless you ask Heritage Action, which sees things differently. They cite Tom Graves in a four-way tie as the House's most conservative member, with a rating of 97 percent. Rep. Paul Broun is the sole holder of their next position with a 96 percent ranking.

National Journal gave a separate article to the ranking of Broun, the only officially announced candidate to replace Sen. Saxby Chambliss. They even dared use the "M" word -- moderate -- to describe his ranking of 175th most conservative member of the House. Other potential candidates listed were Phil Gingrey (52nd), Jack Kingston (55th), Tom Price (59th), and Heritage Actions' #1 Tom Graves at 68th. For those looking at these metrics with an eye on the U.S. Senate race, they also name Rep. John Barrow the most conservative Democrat currently in the U.S. House.

Not only do these rankings differ between the various organizations, but from year to year. The rankings for 2011 votes from National Journal had three Georgia Congressmen -- Gingrey, Price, and Lynn Westmoreland -- all tied at first place. It's hard to imagine 50-60 people getting more conservative than them in one year's time, or that any of these men suddenly developed a lib'rul streak.

Truthfully, these rankings are much more about generating headlines and publicity for the publications and their underlying organizations than they are about the underlying actions of the members. They are known, however, to send congressional communications directors into a bit of a flurry as they try to either capitalize on a beneficial score or try to tamp down any suggestion that the member they work for is anything less than a bona-fide conservative.

The fact that the rankings differ so widely between Heritage Action and National Review delivers a much bigger and more salient point. There is no commonly accepted definition of conservative anymore. The word now means entirely different things to different people. It has, frankly, approached the point where the claim of being a "conservative" is itself almost meaningless without additional context.

The matter is further complicated when attempting to score the attempt to enact a more conservative form of government. National Journal creates a scorecard that ties points closer to that of Republican leadership, indicating that support for an overall plan to enact the most conservative legislation possible moves the overall situation of governance toward the conservative spectrum.

Heritage Action scores more on purity and absolutes, giving more credit to those who buck leadership as more of a rule than an exception. They will generally be supportive of those who eschew compromise and will hold out until a bill passes their often illusive goals. They would rather have members not be part of an overall solution than be part of one that they determine is less than their goal.

Overall, scorecards like this give the members of Congress who earn them talking points and direct mail bullet points. They also reduce political debate to yet another form of sound bite instead of facilitating a deeper discussion.

Lost in this process is what it means to be a conservative. You either score highly or you don't.

In a land where Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater are now a full generation removed from leading the movement, conservatives continue to struggle with both brand identity and a cohesive direction with which to grow their base and implement change. The loss of a central definition of conservatism, or an accepted method to even identify what is conservative, illustrates part of Republicans' fundamental problem.

If we no longer even know what it means to be a conservative, it's going to be awfully difficult to sell conservatism to voters who have rejected the party time and again during the last several election cycles.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government;

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