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Mona Charen: Who is the true conservative?

BY MONA CHAREN Published: March 4, 2012

The theme for this year's primary season was set back in May 2011. Recall that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives had just done something that cynics said would not and could not be done. They voted for a budget — the Ryan budget — that actually began to tackle the problem of limitless entitlement spending.

The cliche about entitlements (the “third rail”) had been largely true. Neither Republicans nor Democrats had shown the courage to tell middle-class voters that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would have to change. But on April 15, all but four Republicans (and zero Democrats) voted for a budget that would block grant Medicaid to the states and gradually transform Medicare from the whale-shark entitlement that threatens to swallow all other federal spending into a premium support program.

Naturally, the Republicans got no credit for this principled vote from the usual suspects (the press, the liberal commentators, the professors). But you'd think fellow Republicans and conservatives would offer at least a clap on the back. Nope. Just a few weeks later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, appearing on NBC's “Meet the Press,” labeled the Ryan budget “too radical” and “right-wing social engineering,” which Gingrich explained that he opposed as much as “left-wing social engineering.”

It set the tone for what was to come. While claiming to save the Republican Party from the supposedly “moderate” Mitt Romney, one after another of the Republican presidential candidates has seized the slogans of the left — even of the Occupy movement — to make his case. Judging by campaign rhetoric, there is really only one conservative left in the race, and that's Romney.

A few weeks after “Meet the Press,” Gingrich reversed himself on the Ryan budget. A spokesman said, “There is little daylight between Ryan and Gingrich on Medicare.” But Gingrich was soon sounding like Michael Moore regarding Romney's career at Bain Capital. Romney's wealth, Gingrich said, came from a model of “leverage the game, borrow the money, leave the debt behind and walk off with all the profits. … I think it's exploitive. I think it's not defensible.”

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