Attempting to demonstrate the Tea Party’s extremism last week, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank asked, “Who’s a Real Conservative?” comparing the American Conservative Union ratings of recently ousted Republicans like Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah with past GOP leaders. When taken to task by Tea Partiers at a town hall meeting last spring, Sen. Lindsey Graham reminded the audience he had a lifetime ACU rating of 90.

During the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, John McCain would tout his 82 rating by the ACU, and yet most conservatives would put the senator in the same squishy category as Graham, a dishonor the Tea Party now extends to the likes of Republicans like Murkowski and Bennett. In 2008, the ACU listed Graham as one of only 20 “Senate Standouts,” made up of the Senate’s allegedly most conservative members. Mind you, Graham received this honor just one year after he helped spearhead “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” or amnesty for illegal aliens, considered by many conservatives the senator’s worst offense to date, earning him the name “Grahamnesty.” When Graham attempted to cozy up to those concerned about illegal immigration in August by raising concerns about so-called “anchor baby” citizenship, conservative leader David Keene wasn’t buying it, remarking “This is Lindsey Graham-standing.” For the record, Keene is the nearly three-decade chairman of the ACU.

Milbank, Graham, and others are now asking “What’s wrong with the Tea Party?” Tea Partiers and apparently even David Keene should be asking what’s wrong with the ACU rating.

What Milbank, Graham, and others now consider Tea Party extremism is actually a long overdue reassessment of what it means to be a conservative. Using the ACU rating as his guide, Milbank writes: “I discovered that if conservatives were to employ the purity standards they applied to Murkowski and Bennett, they would have rejected many, if not most, of the leading Republican lawmakers of the past 40 years.” Milbank is correct, but ignores the much larger fact that these Republican lawmakers haven’t accomplished squat in the last 40 years. Conservative rhetoric has abounded. So has government. That the Tea Party might be waking up to this fact could be a new day in American politics–however dark it may seem for establishment Republicans long accustomed to camouflaging their big government records with political accoutrements like ACU ratings. To its credit, the Tea Party seems unmoved by how many times a politician has claimed to be pro-life, pro-gun or pro-war so long as he’s been pro-big government. Republicans love touting their ACU rating. The Tea Party now touts their TARP vote.

The shortfalls of the ACU ratings aren’t peculiar to that organization and other, similar ratings can be just as deceiving. For example, in 2009 the Chamber of Commerce released its congressional scorecard, which gave Rep. Ron Paul–arguably the most free-market member of Congress–the lowest ranking of any Republican. The Chamber also gave Sen. Jim DeMint–another solid free market champion–a similar low rating. According to the Chamber’s 2009 rankings, Republicans Paul and DeMint are less pro-business than Democrats Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Why? Both Paul and DeMint did not vote for President Obama’s nearly $800 billion stimulus, which allegedly was a “pro-business” bill, according to the Chamber.

During Kentucky’s U.S. Senate Republican primary this year, candidate Trey Grayson tried to paint his opponent and eventual nominee Rand Paul as somehow insufficiently pro-life due to Paul’s states’ rights solution to abortion, or overturning Roe v. Wade--something virtually all pro-lifers have long championed. This ruse worked well for a time, even fooling evangelical leader James Dobson, who first endorsed Grayson and then switched his support to Paul after realizing he’d been tricked.

Similarly, how does the ACU’s ratings system treat discrepancies where otherwise conservative Republicans might be penalized for simply holding a position equally conservative but opposite to that of the GOP at large? For example, would Rand’s preference for states’ rights over federal solutions to the abortion issue be considered a negative? After all, conservatives have long been strong supporters of the Tenth Amendment. Is this position any less pro-life? How about Republicans who refuse to support undeclared wars, which, by definition, are unconstitutional? Are these GOP champions of the Constitution, however small in numbers, being penalized as somehow less conservative?

Using ranking standards that ignore these and other significant variances, which often call into question what actually is and isn’t “conservative,” should at least raise serious questions about the validity of those standards. Simply put, would a future Senator Rand Paul somehow be rated as less conservative than, say, Lindsey Graham? Are Ron Paul and Jim DeMint actually less pro-business than Barack Obama?

Conservatives typically recognize their own, and no ratings system is going to fool most into believing that men like Graham or McCain have magically become part of the club. Now that the Tea Party continues to expand its critique to even more establishment Republicans, including those once considered solidly conservative, we will likely be hearing even more about these ratings though they essentially mean nothing now–if they ever did.

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