Conservatives are feeling their oats right now — but they face a rockier road than Reagan and Gingrich did.
Conservatives are feeling their oats right now. Yet we should beware. Overconfidence is a real danger to the cause. It’s a danger that is threatening to break out throughout the conservative movement.
Yes, Barack Obama’s poll numbers are down. Yes, the Democratic Congress is vastly unpopular, and leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid more unpopular still. Yes, the “generic ballot” test for Congress has Republicans in the lead. Yes, the measures of voter “intensity” greatly favor the right, including the Daily Kos finding that 40 percent of Democrats may not vote in 2010. But national politics is like the weather in New Orleans: If you don’t like it, wait five minutes (and vice versa). While sometimes it is possible for perspicacious observers to see growing tides that won’t ebb anytime soon (my former boss Bob Livingston correctly did so in 1994), the far more common occurrence is either for a rough equilibrium to take hold or for the non-ideological electorate to surge and retreat in different directions, with few surges sustaining themselves for longer than about six or nine months. Untouchable President George H.W. Bush, he of the 89 percent approval rating well into 1991, is the most obvious case in point of how political winds can quickly shift.
And it is far easier for a quick shift to hurt the right than the left, because the establishment media is so unconscionably determined to portray a storyline that is hostile to conservatives. Remember how Bill Clinton’s political obituary was so clearly set in stone as late as early August of 1998? Oops. By the November elections, Republicans were losing congressional seats (with Newt Gingrich himself barely winning re-election, only to announce under pressure within a week that he would resign his seat). And I’m sure we all remember how President-to-be Fred Thompson lapped the Republican field…right up until the very moment he entered the race.
Conservatives face an even greater challenge in 2010 than in other years that looked good for them, because the Republican Party organizationally has become so hostile to conservative sensibilities and because no obvious leader for the party or the conservative movement has shown any ability to get officials to sing off the same page — or to hit any positive “high notes.” Not only is there no Reagan or Gingrich issuing a clarion call that others clearly will follow (yes, Gingrich is still around with some good ideas, but with no clearly committed follower-ship), but there is not as deep an officer corps of clearly committed and experienced current federal office-holders. In 1994, even David Broder, the voice of somewhat-centrist Washington authority, was writing columns about how Republicans actually were well positioned experientially and intellectually to govern if they managed to win majorities. Livingston, Henry Hyde, Bill Archer, and Gerry Solomon clearly were veteran conservatives with experiential bona fides, while Dick Armey, John Kasich and a few others with slightly shorter pedigrees also were well respected by the Broder set while not giving an inch on conservative principles.
Today, that’s just not the case. Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Jim DeMint and some others are now about where Armey and Kasich were in 1994 (but without the “mainstream” credibility that — people now forget — Armey and Archer and Hyde already enjoyed). But no principled conservative seems to have quite the status that Archer and Hyde had in 1994. In sum, the 1994 conservative crop had a host of high colonels ripe for promotion; in 2010, both in Washington and in governorships, we can at best boast some very promising majors and captains.
Plus, in both 1980 and 1994, the left was sclerotic and/or hopelessly divided. Yes, there is some fractiousness in the left today, too, but nothing like the divide between Kennedy and Carter in 1980 or the utter confusion (the Clinton White House) and enervation (the Demo congressional leadership) of 1994. And the left has its Soros-funded, Kos-networked, Trippi-computerized, Obama-deified political infrastructure now that just did not exist in those other big years when only the unions and “street money” were around to turn out the Left’s vote. And if anybody thinks that Carter or Clinton had anywhere near the grip on the reins of the administrative state that the Obamites already have, those supposed thinkers are so sadly mistaken as to be numbskulls. The Alinskyized administration now in power is playing for ideological keeps in a way today’s generation of conservatives has never, ever faced.
Finally, even with all those advantages in 1980 that in retrospect seem so powerful, the fact is that, as Craig Shirley reminds us in his masterful new book, Rendezvous With Destiny, the Reagan election itself was very much in doubt until the Gipper’s masterful debate performance just one week before Election Day. In short, the road back then was far from easy, and the road ahead will be at least as difficult.
Hard work is needed. And so is care. There is a fine line between strong advocacy of principles and overly aggressive, insensitive rhetoric that turns people off. The Gingrich Revolution in the mid-'90s had a knack for letting the former devolve into the latter, and paid heavily for it. The Left can get away with all sorts of outrageous, even nasty, statements; but conservatives can be verbally all but crucified even for saying things that are only slightly beyond the pale. If conservatives want to win politically, we must play smart — which means being memorable and even a bit provocative without providing ammunition for the mainstream media to use against us. This is no time for spouting off to blow off steam; this is a time for strong, smart talk that makes our principles and positions sound as attractive as they by rights should be.
This next year also is a time for congressional Republicans to provide an example of dignified, steadfast adherence to principle. This means doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. If the right thing on a particular issue means supporting a position taken by Barack Obama, then do it. But if the right thing means opposing Obama even if Obama’s position temporarily appears to be popular, then opposition is required anyway — along with redoubled efforts to explain to the public why Obama’s position should not be popular. In other words, by conspicuously avoiding rank political calculation, the GOP will get credit for straight shooting from a public looking for something noticeably different from politics as usual. Sometimes the politically smartest thing to do is to act apolitically.
Apolitically, that is, but also magnanimously. Honest differences can be emphasized without questioning motives or character. Every potential ally will remain a potential ally as long as neither you nor the ally closes the door on future cooperation by unnecessarily harsh language. An Olympia Snowe who votes for health care bills in committee may turn around and vote against the bills on the floor, as long as the door is held open. A Joseph Cao or a Ben Nelson who votes “wrong” at one point may vote “right” when the final call is made.
Now…. Having said all of that, it now behooves us to recognize that just as overconfidence can be deadly, so too can a failure to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available to us. At a book party the other night, one of the great decades-long leaders of the conservative movement told me that the political situation for conservatives is so propitious that any conservative organization that fails to double its numbers this year isn’t doing its job well. The energy level out there is palpable, and incredibly impressive. The TEA parties, the town meeting activists, the phone callers and e-mailers and letter writers, are a remarkable sign that there are unprecedented numbers of ground troops available for conservatives to tap as long as conservatives are savvy. A large swath of the public recognizes that what Obama and Pelosi and company are doing is an assault on the very foundations of the American system of limited government and free enterprise. And Americans do care about, do love, their country. If the obstacles facing conservatives are great, so are the numbers of Americans willing to tear those obstacles down.
The job won’t be easy, but it is eminently doable. As Ronald Reagan said at the end of his First Inaugural Address, so too can we say today that the “crisis we are facing today” requires “our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
“And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times and a senior editor of The American Spectator.