Joe Scarborough's Common-Sense Conservatism

How he thinks the Republicans can come back—and why he doesn't think moderation is the key.

Pat Buchanan. Tucker Carlson. Alan Keyes. Believe it or not, MSNBC was once home to many conservatives. Joe Scarborough—host of the cable network’s “Morning Joe”—is the last man standing.

Scarborough’s ability to survive among some of the most strident liberal pundits on television has led some to conclude he is a RINO himself: a Republican in name only. “I have been savaged,” he admits, but he tells me this is a misconception. He doesn’t want a more moderate Republican Party.

“History bears out that moderates just don’t win presidential elections [for the GOP],” Scarborough says. He points to the last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, as prime examples. Scarborough also notes that he started criticizing the party while George W. Bush was president—from the right.

Bush, he says, was a “big government Republican.” The numbers bear out Scarborough’s assessment: Dubya presided over a more rapid increase in discretionary spending than Bill Clinton, the biggest new entitlement program since LBJ, and watched a $128 billion surplus give way to a $455 billion deficit. The gap between spending and revenues was well on its way to $1.2 trillion before Barack Obama began his stimulus binge.

“Why am I not loyal to the Republican Party?” Scarborough recalls people asking during the Bush era. “I am a conservative first.”

So what kind of presidential candidate should Republicans nominate? “Conservatives who understand how to connect with the middle of the country,” Scarborough says. “Elect somebody who shares Reagan’s traits.”

Lots of Republicans say the party should hearken back to the glory days of Ronald Reagan. But in his new book The Right Path: From Ike To Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics—and Can Again, Scarborough contends that the Gipper is a model for broadening rather than purifying the GOP.

Scarborough describes Reagan as “a conservative who saw his political mission as drawing the center closer to his own views without alienating those he was wooing.” He contrasts that with all “too many Republicans today, who seem less interested in moving voters to their position than in planting an ideological flag in the ground and declaring those not in lockstep insufficiently conservative, unpatriotic, or worse.”

“This approach allows those political Pharisees to feel self-righteously superior to all others,” Scarborough writes. “But it is an approach that also guarantees an endless streak of electoral losses to the Republican Party these shortsighted amateurs claim to be helping with their ideological purges.”

Unlike many of the pundits Scarborough excoriates as stealing “from Rush Limbaugh’s playbook in hopes of making his $40 million a year,” Scarborough has held elected office. He arrived in Congress in 1994, joining the right flank of the Republican revolution.

While often a thorn in the leadership’s side, he recognizes that there is more to winning than just ideology. “I couldn’t have won in 1992,” Scarborough tells me. “I wouldn’t have won [a first term] in 1996.” In both his book and our conversation, Scarborough downplays moderate politics in favor of what he describes as a “moderate temperament.”

The former Florida congressman says his party is now too angry. Scarborough, who voted for Ron Paul in the 2012 primaries, believes it is also too quick to engage in foreign wars. He laments that Afghanistan began as “an anti-terrorist campaign and turned into an anti-insurgency campaign.” He would follow Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell—both Reagan men—in making sure we know what the “triggering event is to get us out of a county before we even go to war.”

Yet Scarborough seems hawkish on two live foreign-policy issues, Iran and Syria. “I’m not an isolationist,” he says. “I’m concerned about Iran.” Not so long ago, there was a Republican presidential candidate who balanced a conservative record with moderate rhetoric, seemed to regret past preventive wars while being open to new ones, and whose personality got him tagged a RINO. His name was Jon Huntsman and he dropped out after the New Hampshire primary.

Instead of Huntsman, Scarborough likes some more familiar candidates. One is Chris Christie, whom he describes as “a pro-life guy who took on unions and cut taxes.” He is also partial to his old congressional pal John Kasich, who helped balance the budget in the 1990s—and more recently bypassed a Republican-controlled legislature to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion as governor of Ohio.

Still, much of Scarborough’s critique of his party rings true. If we can’t have morning in America, then at least there’s Morning Joe.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Image: Flickr/Ava Lowery. CC BY 2.0.