Remember when pundits accused the GOP of abandoning its big tent—the one big enough to include a broad diversity of views? You can kiss that meme goodbye. This year's presidential candidates span the political spectrum. They are both pro-abortion and anti-abortion. They have both embraced and opposed bans on assault weapons. They have both accepted and rejected the idea of human-induced climate change, both promoted and derided a government takeover of health care, supported both amnesty for illegal aliens and building a giant wall on the border.
And that's just Mitt Romney. We haven't even touched on the rest of the field yet.
Jokes aside, the GOP campaign really does present voters with sharp contrasts. Take Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
Santorum, the paladin of the religious right, opposes not only abortion but also birth control. ("Many of the Christian faith have said . . . contraception is okay," he said in October. "It's not okay. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.") His views on homosexuality are simian. His economic platform is a mix of protectionism, tax-code social engineering, and industrial policy. His foreign-policy views are straight out of the GOP hawk's nest. He is, as Paul observed during a debate in New Hampshire, a "big-government conservative."
And proud of it: In 2006 Santorum told NPR, "One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. … This whole idea of personal autonomy, well, I don't think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn't get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn't get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want." That was not Santorum's view then, and it certainly isn't now: In July he said he would "fight very strongly against libertarian influence" within the GOP.
Paul, who once ran on the Libertarian Party ticket, has built his entire political career around "this whole idea of personal autonomy." As a minarchist – someone who believes in minimal government – he would call off the war on drugs, slash government spending, eliminate five Cabinet departments, and allow states to legalize prostitution and recognize gay marriages. His foreign-policy views are isolationist—one staffer claims Paul opposed even the war in Afghanistan, although he ultimately voted for it. Paul supports gun rights and home schooling. (He falls short of perfect consistency on immigration, where he sounds like a Michele Bachmann wannabe.)
Between those two extremes lie Newt Gingrich and Romney. Gingrich's ideological core seems to be an abiding belief in his own historical greatness. Romney's core is pragmatism. He is the apotheosis of git-er-done business acumen: If it works, use it; if it doesn't, fix it; if you can't, drop it.
Pragmatism may be America's most important contribution to philosophy, and there are many things to be said for the approach. Romney's record as a rescuer of the Olympic Games underscores one of them. What's more, the pragmatist is open to evidence. He can be persuaded by logic. He is not going to conduct a reign of terror against ideological deviationists and other Enemies of the People. Unlike the ideologue, the pragmatist is never in danger of believing that while certain notions might work well in practice, they are useless in theory. A little more pragmatism during the 20th Century might have saved a few million lives.
There are also several things to say against the pragmatic approach. First, there are often several practical solutions, and pragmatism can't easily decide among them. Keynes and Friedman both offer compelling advice on economic crises. Whose do you take? Second, pragmatic solutions to certain problems can create others. Illegal drug use is a problem. Universal drug testing would be a pragmatic solution, but it would not be the right one.
Third, and most important, before you can decide the best way to do something you have to know what you want to do. And pragmatism offers little guidance on many profound questions – such as gay marriage, the rights of embryonic life, the right to collective bargaining, or the morally just degree of income redistribution in a market economy.
It's possible that when Romney tells different audiences different things about the same topic, he is simply taking a very pragmatic approach to getting elected. But it also is possible that he gives contradictory answers about which way he would lead the country because, deep down, he simply doesn't know.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.