Is conservatism in America in decline? After the year the political right had in 2005, some pundits are decidedly pessimistic.
Complaining about the Senate’s decision to impose a windfall profits tax on “Big Oil,” Robert Novak stated, “Republicans should be asking themselves why they were given their Senate majority and what they are doing with it.” Meanwhile, George Will worries that the conservative coalition “is coming unglued for many reasons,” and “will rapidly disintegrate if limited-government conservatives become convinced that social conservatives… try to conscript government into sectarian crusades.” He also argues that “the limited-government impulse is a spent force in a Republican Party that cannot muster congressional majorities to cut the growth of Medicaid from 7.3 percent to 7 percent next year. That ‘cut’ was too draconian for some Republican ‘moderates.'”
Add to the lamentations of Novak and Will the shambles of Social Security reform, the inability to extend the Bush tax cuts, the defeat of drilling in ANWR, Energy and Transportation bills that made a mockery of fiscal conservatism, declining support for the War in Iraq, and the scandals involving Jack Abramoff (serious) and Tom Delay (not serious), and it’s fair to say that the Good Ship Conservatism has sprung a leak.
Will it sink? Probably not. The little secret of conservatives is that we love to bemoan the demise of our ideology. It’s arguably our second-most favorite indoor sport (or, if you believe liberal stereotypes, our most favorite). In 1997, when Bill Clinton was beating the GOP Congress left and right, and New Gingrich’s hold on the House was slipping away, the Weekly Standard ran a cover story asking, “Is There A Worldwide Conservative Crackup?” Novak and Will seem like deja vu all over again.
A successful political movement does not move upward in a straight line. Rather, it is a line that moves upward but is punctuated with peaks and valleys. Two thousand five was definitely a valley. But it was only a valley.
There were strong indications in 2005 that conservatism is still very healthy. Despite the left’s best efforts, the Senate Democrats could only muster 22 votes to oppose John Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Although that was followed by the nomination of the next David Souter in the person of Harriet Miers, that was President Bush’s failure. Indeed, it revealed the strength of conservatives, for when they balked at Miers, Bush had to withdraw her nomination and nominate a solid constitutionalist in Sam Alito. The odds favor Alito being part of the Court by February, a promising sign that conservatives are winning the battle for the judiciary.
The year ended with Congress managing to pass $40 billion worth of reductions in the rate of spending. Surely, this is a small drop of fiscal sanity in an ocean of red ink, but it is important to recall why there were any reductions at all — namely, a blogosphere-led effort called PorkBusters. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some prominent bloggers including N.Z. Bear and Glenn Reynolds began the PorkBusters project to compel Congress to find spending reductions to offset aid for hurricane victims. Numerous bloggers joined in the effort, suggesting that there is grassroots support among conservatives for more spending restraint.
The disastrous Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. New London turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. It woke up a good deal of America to the erosion of property rights, galvanized the property-rights movement, and resulted in several states taking action to stem eminent domain abuse. Congress is also moving on the issue. Kelo likely also helped secure the passage in the House of the Pombo Bill, which adds some sensible private-property protections to the Endangered Species Act. Whether it will pass the Senate remains to be seen, but it is something conservatives should push for in 2006.
On balance, 2005 was not a good year for conservatism. However, that is no reason to despair. Conservatism was battered this year, but it won’t be long before it resumes its upward trajectory.