It sounds like the setup of a joke — likely a bad one. What do Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Rand Paul have in common? For that matter, what do any of the 17 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have in common that they would all belong on the same stage for a primary debate?

Anyone who watched the Republican presidential primary debates on Fox Thursday night probably wondered how so many different men and women, from such diverse backgrounds and with such a broad range of views on critical issues, can all describe themselves as “conservative” and keep a straight face.

 

In more than 30 years in business and public relations, I’ve had the pleasure of working with politicians from both chambers of Congress; religious leaders; groups that fight for senior citizens’ rights, criminal justice reform and patients’ rights; and authors and filmmakers whose books and movies promote conservative ideas, extoll the virtues of free market principles and raise important questions about racial issues.

I've worked directly and indirectly with outlets that at least give a fair shake to conservative views, such as The Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, Washington Times, National Review, Weekly Standard, Daily Caller, Townhall and, of course, Fox News and many others.

There are two simple things that stand out to me as the pillars of conservatism: the absolute love of individual freedom and an acceptance of personal responsibility. In my mind everything "conservative" stands on these two ideas.

That's given me enough perspective to know that there are lots of ways to define conservatism. You can be a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a compassionate conservative or even a — gasp! — libertarian. You can make defensible conservative arguments on multiples sides of a wide range of issues, from taxes and spending to immigration to gay marriage.

But through the years and experiences there are two simple things that stand out to me as the pillars of conservatism: the absolute love of individual freedom and an acceptance of personal responsibility. In my mind everything "conservative" stands on these two ideas. 

Freedom is what sets the United States and its citizens apart from other countries in the world. The U.S. was founded on the idea that all people should be free to worship, work and live as they choose. And, no one, not a king, priest or employer has the right to take that from them, through direct or indirect means. Freedom is rooted in the belief that every person is unique and capable of whatever they can dream or imagine. 

The other pillar, personal responsibility, is a natural extension of the understanding that our freedom — our ability to dream, imagine and act — is what separates us from all other creatures. It is a mature realization that freedom, while capable of creating beautiful and amazing things, isn’t something that’s always neat and pretty.

Sometimes while pursuing our dreams, we fail. Whether it’s riding a bicycle and taking a spill or building a business and seeing it fail, the freedom we have to do those things comes with risk, and it’s ours to bear. It can’t/shouldn’t be transferred or put on someone else. 

That’s it, plain and simple, my definition of conservatism — freedom and personal responsibility.

It’s not sophisticated but these are ideas that I think the majority of American’s can still relate to. If the one of the 17 GOP candidates we saw on Thursday night in Cleveland wants to be my conservative nominee for president these are the two issues they need to clearly identify.

David Fouse is a partner with the Pinkston Group a public relations firm in Northern Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @CSuiteRunners.