Whenever the Democrats fare poorly at the ballot box — a thankfully common occurrence in the post-Reagan era of American politics — the various factions that make up the liberal coalition promptly turn against each other. Economic populists blame social liberals for focusing on gay marriage rather than bread-and-butter issues like the minimum wage and universal healthcare. The social liberals reply that cynical male progressives are too eager to throw feminists and gays overboard for political gain. Minority activists complain of being taken for granted by the Democratic establishment.
This biennial airing of grievances among the left’s extended family of ideologues and interest groups may be a spectacle, but it also serves a useful purpose by allowing liberals to rehash internal debates and regroup following electoral setbacks. After the Republicans’ midterm losses last November — and, to a lesser extent, ever since the polls started predicting a dismal outcome many months before — conservatives have been engaged in a similar enterprise.
As a result, libertarians are actively sparring with the religious right. Immigration restrictionists are involved in an even more heated debate with conservatives who prefer the Wall Street Journal’s “there shall be open borders” approach. From James Baker-style realists to paleocons, there has been growing dissent against the post-9/11 interventionist foreign policy attributed to the neoconservatives — insofar as thinkers on the right still agree about what the term “neoconservative” even means.
“We’ve lost our way,” Congressman Mike Pence, the former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, often says of his party. He points out that the GOP has embraced pork-barrel politics and failed to control federal spending. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, by contrast, warns the government cutters that “any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win.”
Of course, finger pointing isn’t the same thing as soul searching. As my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty memorably put it, “At the end of the day, the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.” Yet the right does face serious challenges — see Jeremy Lott’s report on the state of the movement’s “fusionist” alliance, for example — that some introspective conservatives are struggling to meet.
A few of these hardy souls — politicians, activists, journalists, and intellectuals — traveled to Washington, D.C. last weekend to attend the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit. Participants tried to keep GOP losses in perspective while optimistically charting a way forward. Every now and then, however, one could glimpse the toll taken by the change in political fortunes.
At a debate on the merits of the president’s plan to send additional troops to Iraq, pro-surge pundit William Kristol thanked his opponent, Lawrence Korb of the liberal Center for American Progress, for agreeing to speak to such a hostile audience. “At least I hope it’s a hostile audience,” the amiable Kristol cracked. “If not, we’re in real trouble.” The Weekly Standard editor needn’t have worried — most of the summit crowd was indeed on his side — but even the most exuberant hawks are aware that the public is losing confidence in their preferred Iraq policies.
Yet the right’s domestic policy project isn’t looking that much more vibrant. Perennial Republican issues like crime control and opposition to higher taxes failed to deliver as they once did not only in reddish states like Virginia but also such Democratic bastions as Maryland and Massachusetts. Here it is the success of conservative policies rather than perceived failures that have brought the GOP to the point of diminishing returns. Once you have cut taxes and lowered crime rates, there isn’t as much mileage in campaigning on promises to do so once again.
A more promising strategy might be to shape right-of-center policies that offer creative solutions to problems that vex large numbers of voters. The Reagan tax cuts and welfare reform, to cite just two examples, weren’t popular just because they conformed to conservative ideology. They were popular because they were seen as addressing pressing national problems. The failure to think along these lines, Ramesh Ponnuru argues in the current National Review, has caused the conservative program to become “oddly detached from American life.”
It isn’t easy for a divided movement to react to sudden shifts in the political terrain, especially when conservatives were allowing themselves to dream of a near-permanent Republican majority just three years ago. But the prospect of another Clinton presidency is a pretty good reason for the right to give it a try.