Are happy days here again? To hear William Kristol tell it, President Bush looks like a winner and the "chances of a Republican winning the presidency in 2008 aren't bad."
The Politico reports that the "GOP establishment" is rallying around Bush. And the voters might be turning away from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi: The latest Gallup poll shows the Democratic Congress's approval rating down 13 points since February, to an abysmal 24 percent.
But the right isn't out of the woods yet. One needn't look far to find examples of Republicans failing to learn from past mistakes. Case in point is Congressman Don Young of Alaska, the House's leading champion of the "Bridge to Nowhere." When Congressman Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, offered an amendment to strike funding for native Alaskan and Hawaiian education programs, Young did not react calmly.
"You want my money, my money," Young thundered, before warning Garrett that "those who bite me will be bitten back." Such "biting" criticism of conservatives by senior Republicans is hardly unique. In the aftermath of the 2006 elections, news stories were filled with anonymous quotes from GOP congressmen who blamed budget hawks rather than big spenders for their defeat. In the leadership elections that followed, the old guard routed conservative mavericks.
Republicans have a credibility problem with the persuadable portion of the electorate, a problem conservatives will find to be contagious if they embrace the party too tightly before righting its course. The numbers don't lie. A Rasmussen poll earlier this month found that Americans trust the Democrats more than the GOP on nine out of ten issues, including Iraq, immigration, healthcare, and taxes.
On national security, the issue that helped Republicans win elections throughout the Cold War and since 9/11, the GOP has a paltry 45 to 44 percent lead. That's an eight-point gain since June, but still within the poll's margin of error.
Non-ideological Americans turn to Republicans to keep the country safe, deal competently with fiscal policy, and run the government smoothly. Swing voters no longer trust Republicans in these areas. And to the extent that the Republican Party is conflated with conservatism, they no longer have much faith in conservatives either.
Republicans have become associated with such un-conservative traits as pork-barrel spending, immigration-policy ineptitude, democratic utopianism, and bureaucratic bungling at home and abroad. Genuine conservative proposals for dealing with healthcare and the looming entitlements crisis are generally less familiar to the public than the big-government liberal alternatives.
Conservatives cannot get their credibility back by talking to themselves. The audience of Hugh Hewitt's radio show already supports the surge, as do most people likely to be moved by the phrase "Give Petraeus a chance." The debate over Iraq has stalemated, with hawks unable to persuade most Americans that there is a viable resolution to the conflict and doves unable to explain what would happen if we withdrew. That impasse can't be ended by appealing to the third of voters who already approve of the president's policy.
Nor can conservatives regain credibility without distancing themselves from Republicans when they're wrong. This doesn't require well publicized John McCain-style moments. It does suggest the need for sufficient intellectual integrity and prudence to not become needlessly identified with discredited members of the political class.
Finally, while the liberalism that pervades much of the press is an enduring obstacle to conservatives it should not serve as an all-purpose excuse. The mainstream media today has a fraction of the audience and influence that it had when Ronald Reagan stared down the Soviets and won the Cold War.
Most Americans are not systematic political thinkers and many don't have rock-solid loyalty to either political party. These are the people who will determine the outcome of the country's most pressing debates. Millions of them have supported conservatives in the past and could be persuaded to do so again.
But let's not pretend it will be an easy task. William F. Buckley Jr. described conservatism as "the politics of reality," not the politics of wishful thinking.
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