Does Ron Paul’s New Hampshire Success Mean That Independent Voters Are Actually Really Conservative?

Jon Huntsman is not a moderate but he appeals to independents.

Jon Huntsman is not a moderate but he appeals to independents.

Writing at his new Daily Beast digs, David Frum notes that independents are not necessarily centrists. “If Ron Paul did well with independents, it’s because the state’s independents actually tilt to the right of the mainstream Republican party,” he observes. But is this true?

The post has a picture of Huntsman (duplicated here), another politician who has been described as a ‘moderate’ when in fact, other than his admittedly more moderate social views, the former governor and ambassador is well to the right of guys like Romney or Gingrich when it comes to fiscal policy, taxes, and markets. That he’s also affable and not prone to talk-radio-screechiness is a point in his favor but not an argument for his centrism.

That being said, I think it’s just wrong to say that independents are conservative or that they are to the right of the Republican party. It not only depends on each individual independent, it also depends on the issue.

The reason Ron Paul did so well in New Hampshire is largely because a lot of people are war-weary. They’re tired of the war on drugs. They want a scaled back federal government. They’re libertarians, in other words, or anti-war liberals. If anything is true it’s the fact that Paul draws a wide swath of the electorate to his banner.

The problem lies in our insistence in framing everything in this tired old left-right dichotomy.

I mean, I used to think of myself as a conservative (now I resist the urge to use scare quotes) – my friend Alex Knapp won’t let me forget this piece on up-and-coming conservatives that listed me as ‘David Frum: The Next Generation.’ And while I do think David makes tons of sense on lots of domestic policy issues, I tend to have very different foreign policy views. I’m more of a libertarian than David and to the left of him on issues like the drug war. I also call myself a liberal though I’m probably too conservative for many liberals (and too bleeding-heart for most libertarians.) These labels are blunt instruments used more often to cast people out of a group than to include them in a meaningful cause.

In any case, if you go to New Hampshire you’ll find a lot of independent voters who are probably to the right of the Republican party on fiscal issues but well to the left on social issues. The fact is, calling people right or left these days is often just an exercise in futility. Outside the tribal grounds most people are either not very political at all or much more heterodox than we give them credit for.

So I wouldn’t go so far as to beat the America-is-a-conservative-nation drum just because indie voters gave Ron Paul second place in New Hampshire. Actually, going against all my pundit instincts, I’d be careful to draw too many lessons at all from a primary season. It’s too much the tournament, too much the emotional brawl, to really give us a clear picture of the American electorate, try as we might.

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