In the long running battle for the nomination, Republican candidates have been falling all over each other trying to establish their conservative bonafides. As Trump, Cruz, Rubio et al. seem to understand it, conservatism only requires ticking off a set of positions: cut taxes, small government, pro-life, pro–Second Amendment, more military spending. However, there is a key element of conservatism that these sometimes smooth and often crass political alley fighters ignore—that is, the virtue of respect: respect for persons, political opponents, and the office of the President of the United States.
By definition, conservatism entails being conservative about change. It means being resistant to altering traditions—vaunted traditions such as being respectful of people and authority. We constantly preach it to our children. Almost every primary school classroom has a poster tacked to the wall proclaiming the paramount importance of respect. College campuses resonate with invocations to respect. But what kind of object lesson do our self-styled apostles of conservatism present on the campaign trail?
In the mid-January debate, former candidate Chris Christie wagged his finger at Obama and threatened, “Come this fall we are gonna kick your rear end out of the white house.” The bumptious New Jersey governor could have boasted, “We will beat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the fall” or something to that adversarial but respectful effect. Instead, he settled on asking us to imagine a boot on the derriere of the President of the United States! Picking up rhetorical steam, the hubristic Christie went on to characterize the Commander and Chief as “a petulant child.”
Donald Trump’s record of disrespecting respect is too long to rehearse here. Months ago, when he was just warming up, he infamously tabbed war hero John McCain a loser for being captured. Trump burbled, "He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.” Then it was on to Megyn Kelly and his jaw dropper: “She had blood coming out of her eyes and everywhere else.” Using crude sexual terms, the New York real-estate mogul, who insists he is a conservative, described Hillary Clinton as getting “schlonged” by Obama. This week it was “Ted Cruz is a totally unstable individual…the biggest liar I've ever come across, in politics or otherwise and I have seen some of the best of them.”
For his part, Cruz also steps into the gutter in seach of tough-guy credentials. The Texas senator recently reacted to a perceived jab from President Obama, with words that a twelve-year-old might use to spark a playground tussle. Obama was in Europe, Cruz snapped, “come back and insult me to my face.”
Then there is Marco Rubio of the puzzling “Don’t kid yourself—Obama knows what he is doing” mantra. Seeming to seethe with anger, Rubio has unloaded with more personal vitriol, even resorting to the dubious language of “class.” On a talk show himself, Rubio criticized Obama for appearing on talk shows and taking selfies. Rubio scolded, “We have a president now who has no class.” No class?
In comparison with today’s mud-slinging presidential hopefuls, Mitt Romney and John McCain represented the epitome of decorum. So preoccupied with pandering to and enflaming their angry base, the current slate of Republican candidates may espouse conservative political agendas, but they are empty of a core conservative value: respect.