America is not as conservative as it seemed in 2004 and it isn’t as liberal as it looks this morning.
What happened is that four years ago, voters put their trust in one political party to run the country and they didn’t like the results, and so, over the course of two elections, they systematically threw out that political party and turned to a different one. If Democrats disappoint the public, they could be waking up on a not so distant November morning just as devastated as Republicans are today.
Those who are in the profession of writing the first rough draft of history would have us believe that a single election result can signal the end of an intellectual tradition, but actual history instructs us otherwise. This is especially true for conservatism, which rose from the staggering defeat of one its own in 1964, to a glorious triumph 16 years later.
John McCain is an honorable man who sacrificed more for this nation than most of us can imagine, but he’s also eccentric and idiosyncratic. During the campaign, he railed against Wall Street greed and excessive CEO pay on the one hand and against his opponent’s plans to redistribute wealth on the other; he called for a spending freeze while proposing that government spend hundreds of billions of dollars to freeze home foreclosures by partially socializing the housing market.
Of all the ways to put these election results in broader historical context, it’s quite a stretch to equate the defeat of John McCain with the end of conservatism.
At the same time, it would be irresponsible and unhelpful to ignore the severe challenges conservatism faces in both the immediate and long term.
WHEN HE ENTERED the presidential race nearly two years ago, most conservatives didn’t give Barack Obama a chance against the vaunted Clinton machine. After he finally emerged victorious from the protracted primary, many conservatives clung to the belief that disgruntled Clinton voters and working class whites in rural areas would deny him the presidency. To date, Obama has proven all of the skeptics wrong.
The sooner conservatives realize that Obama is not merely a gifted orator, but an incredibly talented politician with the potential to be a transformational liberal leader, the better prepared they will be to resist his agenda. In a time of economic crisis, with Democrats having overwhelming control of both chambers of Congress, stopping him will be difficult, but it won’t be impossible.
Although Obama has radical liberal roots, he was elected president by papering over his past, and convincing Americans that he was a pragmatic moderate who would cut their taxes and be more fiscally responsible than President Bush. Democrats won Congressional races in traditionally conservative districts in much the same way. If, once in power, Obama and his Democratic allies cater to their liberal base, it will be jarring to Americans who had something different in mind when they voted for the abstract concept of change.
Conservatives won’t thwart Democrats by name-calling, but by articulating to the country why liberal proposals will have disastrous implications, and emphasizing that there is little room left to expand social programs when the government has to fund a $700 billion bailout — just as tax revenue falls as a result of the shrinking economy.
While the network of conservative think tanks, journalists, and activists will have to spend the foreseeable future on defense, trying to contain the march of liberalism, it will also be a time for the movement to engage in long-term thinking, so that it will be in a position to reassert itself when the political conditions are right.
Many conservatives would agree that the basket of issues that led to Ronald Reagan’s historic victory don’t have the salience that they did in 1980, when the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent and the Soviet Union still loomed large. But that’s where the agreement ends.
Some of those who identify themselves as conservatives would have us believe that the conclusion to draw from this is that the era of small government conservatism is over, and that the only option is to fight for a conservative welfare state to replace a liberal welfare state. But that was the driving force behind President Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” which led us to a fiscal disaster that critics now want to blame on traditional conservatism.
Those of us who still believe in fighting for limited government cannot allow this to happen. It’s one thing for the Republican Party to embrace statism, but once the conservative movement does so at the philosophical level, it will no longer have a reason to exist. If people want big government, they’ll support liberalism — conservatives simply cannot beat the real thing.
IT WOULD BE ESPECIALLY shortsighted to make such concessions given that conservatives can make small government ideology more relevant to contemporary challenges without abandoning their core beliefs. With all the focus on the financial crisis that hit in this fall, the candidates all but ignored the far more substantial financial crisis that is staring us in the face.
The United States faces a long-term deficit of over $53 trillion that is set to bite us in just a few years, as Baby Boomers begin to retire and current payroll taxes are no longer sufficient to subsidize their retirements. By the time government gets around to doing anything, the choices will be limited. Either lawmakers rein in social programs, or they turn America into a European welfare state, with unconscionable tax rates, high unemployment, a stagnant economy, and a shrinking military budget. Not since Reagan’s landslide in 1980 will there be a better time for conservatives to make the case for a smaller government with limited functions.
Lost in all of this is a discussion of national defense. Liberals would like for us to behave as if the September 11 attacks never happened. They portray the threat of Islamic terrorism as something the Bush administration invented — or, at least, exaggerated — in a cynical ploy to scare up votes.
More than seven years have passed since that fateful day, and so it’s only human nature that Americans would move on and focus on their own economic concerns. But unfortunately, our enemies have not moved on, and if liberalism fails to adequately confront this and other threats to our national security, then just like during the Cold War, it will be up to conservatives to respond.
The road ahead for conservatives is long, dark, and perilous — and there are no guarantees that the movement will reemerge in the years to come or return to its former glory. But it certainly isn’t dead. Not even close.