Young Minds, Short Memories, and the Uses of Political History - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Young Minds, Short Memories, and the Uses of Political History

In responding to Ross Douthat’s “Whither Conservatism?” thumbsucker Tuesday, I offered a concise analysis:

[T]he simple lesson of the past two [election] cycles is something that anyone who has been paying attention since Ross was in middle school would tell you: Lie down with Bushes, wake up with Democrats.

Having been criticized previously for daring to criticize Douthat (apparently the Great Right Hope of some Young Turks), I will let that suffice for now, and turn my attention to Jonathan Chait:

The broader symbolism here is that it’s another sign that Barack Obama’s first two years may not look like Bill Clinton’s. In 1993-94, Clinton’s approval ratings sagged, his party lost special elections everywhere, and conservative Democrats were switching to the GOP. Obama’s approval ratings are high and holding steady, Democrats remain far more popular than Republicans, Democrats held the first special election, and now they’ve picked up a party switch. It’s still early, but Obama is starting to build a self-sustaining psychology of success.

As a philosophy-major friend of mine likes to say, “All things are alike, except insofar as they are different, and all things are different, except insofar as they are alike.” When attempting to analyze contemporary politics by reference to historical analogies, ample caveats are required. There are important differences between 1993 and 2009 that must be taken into account:

  • In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected with a mere 43% plurality, with populist independent fiscal conservative Ross Perot siphoning away a double-digit share of the popular vote.
  • The end of the Cold War (from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) had destabilized the political calculus, rendering foreign policy a secondary concern.
  • The Reagan coalition had successively defeated Jimmy Carter (1980), Walter Mondale (1984) and Mike Dukakis (1988) at the presidential level, although Democrats maintained a firm majority in the House of Representatives and had only lost their Senate majority for six years (1981-87).
  • The recession of 1991-92 was brief and mild (despite Democrat claims that it was The Worst Since The Great Depression), and recovery was already evident by the summer of 1992, absent any impact of Clintonian policy.

Team Clinton and the Democratic Congress clearly underestimated the potential for a mid-term backlash, and the simple key for Republicans in 1994 was crafting a message that would attract Perot voters to GOP congressional candidates. Voila, “The Contract With America.”

The current situation is much different. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress 1995-2007, with the exception of the brief and narrow Democratic Senate majority (2001-03) caused by the defection of Jim Jeffords. Both the Cold War and the GOP glory of the Reagan years are distant memories for those under 40, and the woes of the Republican Party since 2004 cannot be blamed on any third-party spoiler. Finally, the current economic crisis is far more serious, and is likely to last much longer, than the mild recession of 1991-92.

The relevant questions now are (a) what are the prospects for a Republican resurgence in the 2010 mid-terms? and (b) what political strategies might best accomplish such a resurgence or, if you’re a Democrat, prevent it? Douthat and Chait appear to be in agreement that the GOP is unlikely to regain power without a drastic overhaul, both in policy and politics.

However, the problem is that both of them are rather young (Douthat 29, Chait 37) and both are Beltway pundits, not hands-on political operatives. In the hurry-up breathlessness of the Information Age (there were no Web sites, let alone blogs or Twitter, in 1993), they’re rushing to be the first to prophesy the electoral landscape in November 2010 based on polls and other auguries on the eve of Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office.

A Republican resurgence in 2010, if there is to be one, will in large measure be a function of candidate recruitment and fundraising that are only now getting underway in the aftermath of the last election. Douthat and Chait — ideologues naturally concerned about the ideological content of politics — lack the inclination and expertise to evaluate the kind of nuts-and-bolts electoral mechanics that take place at the state, district and county level.

Douthat and Chait each tell a different narrative of where we have been, where we are now, and where we’re likely to go in the future. But if you’ve lived long enough — and I remind the reader that I am an ex-Democrat who proudly voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, when I was 33 — you know how suddenly the political landscape can shift. I became a conservative about the time Jonathan Chait graduated college, and while Ross Douthat was still in ninth grade.

One thing that has been consistent in recent American political history: There have always been many men like Douthat and Chait who sit around Washington observing and commenting on trends, and then there have been those rare men who make trends happen.

“I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”
Ronald Reagan, 1981

Whether or not a conservative resurgence is likely, it can only be accomplished by those who begin with the assumption that it is possible, and then work tirelessly to turn possibility into reality.

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