After Tuesday night's stinging defeats, I'm going to try being an optimist. I'm far better at being a pessimist, so bear with me if this seems a little forced.
Finding positives after an electoral jackhammering is never easy. After breathless predictions of a Republican wave by many conservatives, Mitt Romney barely cleared 200 electoral votes. The GOP actually lost seats in the Senate. Democratic upper house candidates won in red states like Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana. States like Virginia and Florida, considered ripe for Romney, instead rekindled their love for Barack Obama.
Following electoral disasters, movements and political parties start casting about, searching for answers, threatening to excommunicate people. This process can be dangerous; witness the left's splintering during the 1980s, unable to counter Ronald Reagan's statesmanship.
But, if played correctly, it can also be energizing and cleansing. After 2008, when conservatism was supposed to be wheezing on its deathbed, the Tea Party formed, tossing off big-government Bushism and gathering the right into an ideological movement that tackled the challenges of its time. The voters responded in kind and the 2010 election was a blowout.
Now the introspection period is beginning again. Already the firing squads are forming. The GOP's self-styled moderates are blaming the Tea Party for dragging everyone to the right. The Tea Party is pointing back at the moderates, wondering why Romney never offered voters a real alternative.
Of the two, the Tea Party is much closer to the truth. The lion's share of this election was lost by Mitt Romney, who initially ran such a vacuous campaign that the Democrats were able to define him as a bloodthirsty plutocrat. Nothing, not the wretched economy or dazzling debate performances, could revive him from that. When you spend six months declaring "I'm not that guy" and "Economy," you don't win elections.
The challenge in the coming months, then, is for conservatives to force a return to principles with which most Americans can identify. This might be easier than it seems.
After the election was called for President Obama, I left a party in Washington and hailed a taxi. The cabbie asked if I was a Republican. After I answered yes, he launched into a tirade against the Tea Party. Feeling drunk and belligerent, I argued back and we shouted at each other across much of the city. By the end, he was articulating Paul Ryanesque policy prescriptions in one breath and cursing "right-wing extremists" in the next; a fiscal conservative who loathed the fiscally conservative Tea Party.
I'd wager my cabbie's sentiments are pretty common. Polls show people favor less government over more government; lower taxes over higher ones; paying down the debt over spending more on stimulus. Even if Americans don't like movement conservatism right now, they agree with it on the issues that count. Whatever happened on Tuesday, America's ideological soil is still conservative.
Our president, meanwhile, is a pompous left-wing ideologue, incapable of moving to the center. News is breaking that he's considering a national carbon tax for his second term. There's a big battle over income tax rates looming at the beginning of next year. Obamacare's destructive new tax on medical devices begins in 2013. With no spending cuts planned for the president's second term, the national debt will be more than $20 trillion by 2017.
Put plainly, things are going to get a lot worse. And the pain will be directly traceable to big-government social engineering policies: a student loan bubble inflated by Sallie Mae, small businesses not hiring thanks to the high fixed costs of regulations, health insurance premiums surging thanks to Obamacare, and much more.
A contrast will beg to be made. "This is what liberals do," conservatives should say. "And conservatism is a rational response to this."
The biggest obstacle will be bleating from the press. Scream that conservatives are psychotic extremists over and over again for years and eventually people will believe it. Add a chorus of self-flagellating moderates hand-wringing over the future of their party and it only gets worse. And throw in a few self-inflicted wounds (can we please stop talking about rape?) and conservatives get stigmatized without ever having their ideas seriously discussed. We need to pay down the debt, but seriously, screw the Tea Party. It's death by cognitive dissonance.
But this time, conservatives won't have to rely on the robotic cadences of Mitt Romney to get through the cacophony. The right's bench for 2016 -- Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bob McDonnell, Paul Ryan -- is very strong. It's a good bet that the next Republican presidential nominee will be bright, young, and energetic; an articulate messenger.
The opportunity will be there. We just need to make sure the right (and the country) survives the coming years.
Then again, maybe this is all too quixotic. On Tuesday night, there was the singular feeling that a last chance was slipping away, a final stand getting mowed down. Maybe those instincts were right and America is doomed to a future of debt default, massive unemployment, and flaming meteors falling from the sky.
But hey, if you can win over a cabbie…