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Amid skirmishes, common ground for conservatives

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"Economic productivity begins and ends with the needs and purposes of the family household," Rep. Paul Ryan told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "Economic conservatism and social conservatism have the same moral root." Ryan's was a clear note of accord at a conference where discord was a major undercurrent: Some social conservative groups boycotted the conference because a gay Republican group had co-sponsored it. Also, the libertarian presence was so strong that some attendees joked that instead of CPAC, it should be called LPAC. Last week's CPAC brought the social conservative-vs-economic conservative tension to the fore. GOProud, a gay conservative group, was one of CPAC's sponsors for the second straight year. This prompted the Family Research Council, a prominent social conservative think tank and activist group, to drop its sponsorship.

At the same time, the contretemps revived talk of "fusionism" - the notion that social and economic conservatives aren't merely strategic allies, but philosophically linked.

So the easy story for the media was that social and economic conservatives are splitting. But there's also plenty of evidence they're moving closer together.

For instance, look more closely at the Tea Party, clearly powered by concern over taxes, spending, bailouts, and deficits, and you see a bunch of social conservatives. The Tea Party Senate nominees - Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Joe Miller, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Ron Johnson - are all pro-life. Many of the vanquished establishment candidates - Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, Mike Castle, and Lisa Murkowski (who won as a write-in after losing a primary) - are pro-choice.

At CPAC, this pattern also lay beneath the surface.

Rep. Ron Paul was the prom king of CPAC. His speeches and those of his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., were standing-room only. The Campaign for Liberty, spun off from Rep. Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, was easily the most visible organization at CPAC. The Pauls, libertarians' two favorite elected officials, are both 100 percent pro-life.

CPAC-ers were also buzzing about Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., cheering his new spot on the Appropriations Committee and salivating over a possible Flake run for Senate. Flake is the only House member to score better than Rep. Ron Paul on the National Taxpayers Union's last two scorecards. He also has a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life.

The liberal mainstream media ignores this, but in Congress, the distinction between economic and social conservatives is a purely theoretical one. Every proven economic conservative in the House and the Senate is also a proven pro-lifer.

On NTU's most recent report card, 15 senators scored an A. All 15 also have 100 percent ratings from National Right to Life.

While you can find pro-life lawmakers who are not limited-government conservatives (Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, for instance), there's nobody on Capitol Hill whose voting record actually matches the well-worn descriptor, "fiscally conservative and socially moderate." Politicians who use that label usually end up as big spenders and regulators. (In rare cases, such as Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., they maintain their fiscal conservatism, but become social conservatives, too.)

But before concluding social and economic conservatives are the same, it's important to root out the imprecision of the term "social issues." In brief, gay issues are different from abortion.

The two are linked because Christian teaching prohibits both abortion and gay marriage. But regardless of one's take on the moral questions, the "conservative" political response to both is not necessarily the same.

Again, consider that Ron and Rand Paul and Jeff Flake - the three most libertarian lawmakers in Washington - are all pro-life. There's no contradiction here. Libertarians are not anarchists. They embrace a very limited role for government, which includes protecting the vulnerable from violence - even when those vulnerable people are very small and dependent on their mothers for life.

The current GOP House majority is focusing on ending subsidies to abortion giant Planned Parenthood - another point of agreement among all stripes of conservative.

On gay issues, the politics are murkier. Some conservatives push for a federal ban of gay marriage, but that clashes with federalism. Regarding gays serving openly in the military, there's no limited-government position. With the uniformed service chiefs all approving the repeal of don't ask don't tell, conservative opposition is on thin ground.

Conservatism can hold various religious and moral beliefs, and many different viewpoints. Traditionally, its philosophy of limited government has been rooted in a deeper principle: the supremacy of the family over other institutions. Principles and politics don't always mix well.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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