Two long years ago, veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall published Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. In the course of several hundred fluidly argued, thoroughly dispiriting pages, Edsall threw a wet blanket on the hopes of Democrats who thought their party stood a fighting chance of wresting power back from Karl Rove & Co. Republicans were more ruthless, more unified and more generously bankrolled by big business, Edsall maintained, in addition to being inordinately savvier. He was, of course, hardly alone in this view. “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” crooned conservative writer Fred Barnes after the 2004 election. “We are in a tremendous amount of trouble,” sighed a glum Democratic chairman in the New York Times that same fall.
Although the Democrats may still find a way to lose the election in November, no serious observer would suggest today that it would be because they succumbed to an indomitable foe. Less than a full election cycle after Rove’s “permanent majority” was said to be upon us, Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to the lowest level of any President since presidential job-approval ratings were introduced. Republicans in Congress are streaming for the exits. Surveys show young voters identifying as Democrats over Republicans by double-digit margins, and the 81 percent of Americans who believe the country is seriously “on the wrong track” have conservatives wondering aloud whether Rove’s dream has become a nightmare.
“Without change we could face a catastrophic election this fall,” warned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a May 6 article on the website of the journal Human Events. His prognosis is echoed in several new books written by conservatives that come wrapped in optimistic packaging about how the situation may be righted with the proper adjustments but that are full of gloomy pronouncements about the disaster to come if the same tired formula is pursued. “A generation of young Americans has been lost to our party,” worries former Bush speechwriter David Frum in Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, the content of which is far less sanguine than the title suggests. “Conservatives have conspicuously failed to earn [Americans’] trust on most domestic policy questions,” write journalists Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party, which argues that Bush’s plutocratic policies have begun to alienate even many on the right.
The chastened tone of these books is striking in a movement that could scarcely have sounded more sure of itself a few years ago, when the myriad factions of the Republican Party–libertarians, opponents of abortion, champions of big business, neocons–appeared to be marching in lockstep to Karl Rove’s tune. Now Republicans are hurling blame at Bush for betraying conservative principles as they search about for scapegoats. “Everyone is sniping at each other,” a member of the House Republican Conference recently told Politico shortly after the GOP lost a special election in Louisiana’s 6th District, a seat it had held since 1975. The defeat came on the heels of a similar setback in March in Illinois, in the district formerly represented by Dennis Hastert. These turnovers, and a widely anticipated special election loss on May 13 in Mississippi, cast a grim shadow over a recent meeting on Capitol Hill where Tom Cole, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, warned members there were no resources to “save” incumbents facing well-heeled Democratic challengers.
To some degree, strategic and philosophical tensions among conservatives are nothing new. The priorities of Friedrich von Hayek devotees and James Dobson fans, to say nothing of pro-empire neoconservatives and isolationist paleocons, have never been neatly aligned. In many ways, it’s a wonder such disparate groups ever found a home in the same party. Yet every time hopes have risen on the left that the various strands of the conservative coalition might unravel, these hopes have been dashed. The conservative movement that has reshaped the political landscape over the past four decades has proven resilient and enviably adept at pressing forward with an agenda that never seems to moderate. Will now be any different? Will the conservative crackup under Bush come to be seen as a minor detour on the right’s steady march to power? Or will it bring an era to a close?
Some who see a lasting realignment under way point to demographic factors, in particular the growing numbers of Hispanics, Asians, professional women and unmarried people who have joined the electorate in recent years and to whom the GOP has done little to endear itself. But while the number of registered Republicans has been falling steadily, more Americans still identify themselves as conservative than liberal. The main problem facing the conservative movement is not demographic. It is doctrinal. It is the problem that confronts any insurgency whose heady idealism comes crashing up against reality once power is seized.
For forty years, the most important trait of conservatives of all stripes has been their unshakable conviction that their vision and their ideas are right. Moral permissiveness, a feckless foreign policy, a welfare-dependent underclass: all the viruses that had infected the body politic under the stewardship of liberals would be cured if only conservatives were given a chance. The right was united above all in its belief that a new Eden would dawn when Americans were liberated from the tyranny of government, whose intrusive hands reached unwarrantedly into every aspect of citizens’ lives (save, of course, the bedroom, where those hands were needed to prevent overly liberated citizens from indulging the wrong impulses). When Bill Clinton ended welfare and declared that the era of big government was over, the argument seemed to have been cinched: at long last, even Democrats had come to realize the folly of their ways. But something funny happened on the way to making the revolution complete: when Republicans were finally given the opportunity to free the citizenry from the chains of the Leviathan state, the result was crony capitalism, fiscal recklessness and bumbling incompetence on an unprecedented scale. The opportunity to govern without interference from liberals came, and the consequences–in New Orleans, in Baghdad, in neighborhoods ravaged by housing foreclosures, in levels of inequality unmatched since the Gilded Age–have been calamitous.
Conservatives stunned by this turn of events shouldn’t be: it’s not exactly shocking that a party committed to the idea that government is the problem did not appoint qualified experts to run agencies like FEMA. Or that a party that views the market as a solution to everything found a way to disburse no-bid contracts to the likes of Halliburton and tax cuts to billionaires in the midst of a war. Yet the idea that Republicans could shrink the bloated government down to size without compromising the national interest–indeed, while enhancing freedom–has proved anything but easy to rebut. Ronald Reagan won landslide victories by promising to get big government off ordinary Americans’ backs. Democrats were routinely pilloried as “tax-and-spend liberals” who poured voters’ hard-earned savings into outmoded social programs that only exacerbated the problems they promised to solve.
It took Bush’s ruinous tenure to illustrate that there are some problems–predatory lending, escalating energy costs, natural disasters–for which the government is a necessary remedy and, perhaps, to persuade less affluent voters to think twice before aligning themselves with the Republican Party against “liberal elites.” For several decades, Republicans have succeeded in luring such voters into their ranks not merely by promising to lower their taxes but also by tapping into their cultural anxieties on issues like gay marriage, abortion and guns. A few years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find a pundit in the country who didn’t think this strategy was working. Indeed, the evidence suggested as much: in 2004, for example, white working-class women with annual household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 backed Republicans by a margin of 60 to 39 percent. Their support helped Bush carry crucial blue-collar states like Ohio. Soon thereafter, Time magazine named Bush its Person of the Year.
Two years later, however, this same group of female voters swung to the Democrats, and just like that the GOP majority in Congress was gone. The shift undoubtedly had something to do with growing disenchantment over the war in Iraq. But it’s also possible that, at a time when more and more Americans are vulnerable to the dislocations of an increasingly volatile economy, the right’s pro-family, antigovernment rhetoric has worn thin. The paradox of championing stability and traditional values, on the one hand, and unfettered capitalism, on the other, is apparently no longer something only liberals find odd. In a cover story in National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry observed that on domestic issues “it is almost impossible to exaggerate the Democratic advantage” and warned that ignoring the economic anxieties of working-class voters who’ve been absorbed into the GOP could prove fatal. “We don’t have to support ‘universal coverage’ on health care,” they wrote. “But we ought to talk more about health care than about the budget.” Douthat and Salam agree, citing a Pew survey conducted in 2005 that divided the electorate into nine discrete categories. Voters in several of the conservative groups expressed criticism of big business and support for more government involvement to address the economic risks facing families, even if this required paying higher taxes. On domestic issues, they conclude, the Republican Party “isn’t just out of touch with the country as a whole; it’s increasingly out of touch with its own base.”
If these analysts are right, the GOP may be in far greater trouble than even they fear, because the solution they recommend–serious measures to address the insecurity facing the working class–is unlikely to come from a party increasingly wedded to the interests of the ultra-privileged. At one point in Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam propose wage subsidies for low-income workers. It’s a nice idea but not one likely to be greeted with great enthusiasm in a party that has consistently blocked efforts to raise the minimum wage while carving out tax loopholes for hedge fund managers. The same goes for broadening access to affordable healthcare, which in any serious plan would require vastly expanding the role of government, long a no-no on the right.
There is, in fact, a growing chorus of conservative critics who attribute the Bush Administration’s failures not to its reckless tax cuts but to its insufficient fealty to the tenets of free-market orthodoxy. According to this camp, Bush’s domestic agenda would have succeeded but for out-of-control domestic spending and the lack of zeal displayed in the drive to privatize Social Security. It’s not hard to imagine how this wing of the right will respond to a major healthcare initiative in the years to come–by launching a campaign to sabotage it, as happened in 1993 when the Clinton Administration introduced such a plan.
If the drive to “slay the beast” of the federal government has begun to give even some conservatives pause, so too has the messianic foreign policy Bush and his advisers have so relentlessly pursued since 9/11. The reason, of course, is Iraq, which even the war’s most avid supporters concede has done the Republican Party potentially irreparable harm. “Iraq is the great wreck and failure of this presidency, the great enduring shadow on our party,” writes David Frum in Comeback, words it undoubtedly pained him to pen and that some of his comrades will surely see as coming too late. Frum is the neoconservative widely credited with having coined the phrase “axis of evil” (he actually called it the “axis of hatred”). In 2003 he wrote a National Review article titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in which he declared that paleoconservatives who did not support the war “have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.” And so it is all the more striking to hear Frum announce that conservatives must “turn a new page” in foreign policy. What he means is that they should not feel ashamed to join the diplomacy-adoring appeasers on the left: “We should make clear that we as Republicans and conservatives are ready to go the extra mile on negotiation. Direct talks with Iran? Why not?”
The billions of dollars wasted and thousands of lives ruined by Bush’s war may eventually recede from public consciousness; they have already faded from the headlines. But the damage to the right (to say nothing of the damage to the country) may prove lasting all the same, because the “war on terror” was not a cause embraced solely by the band of neoconservatives who brought us the war in Iraq. It was the template for a grand moral struggle that, like the fifty-year battle against the Soviet Union, was supposed to infuse conservatism with a sense of purpose and clarity not witnessed since Reagan rallied the faithful against communism. Several years ago, Joseph Bottum, an editor at First Things, wrote “The New Fusionism,” an essay in which he explained why Bush’s foreign policy had appealed to everyone from social conservatives obsessed with the evils of abortion to neocons preoccupied with the evils of the Taliban (who, on the matter of women’s rights, would find much to admire in a journal like First Things). What brought them all together was a shared insistence that “there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised.”
Now that this impulse has led to disaster, many conservatives are having second thoughts. As the one in six Republicans who cast a vote for Ron Paul in the Pennsylvania primary attest, the streak of isolationism that has long existed on the right appears to be undergoing a resurgence. The skepticism of conservative realists who viewed the war in Iraq with wariness from the start has grown more vocal and pronounced. The raw fear that once persuaded large numbers of soccer moms, professionals and young people to vote for Bush has given way to widespread disgust at a party that has squandered the nation’s moral credibility while ignoring equally pressing problems that future generations will have to deal with–the impending meltdown of the planet, for example. A recent poll shows that Democrats hold an eleven-point advantage over Republicans on the question of which party will do a better job on foreign policy, and a staggering 33 percent edge when it comes to restoring America’s respect in the world. In the 2006 Congressional election, 18-to-29-year-olds–voters whose political consciousness was forged between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq–backed Democratic Congressional candidates by a margin of 60 to 38 percent. It is the exact opposite of the trend that took place during the Reagan era, and for conservatives it is a deeply worrisome sign: once formed, the political allegiances of such voters tend to last.
Judgments about the future of American politics often turn out to be wrong, especially when the subject is the fate of conservatism. Defenders of traditional cultural values were supposed to disappear after the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. A quarter-century later, Lionel Trilling described liberalism as “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States, a view many postwar intellectuals shared, dismissing the American right as a fringe movement of xenophobic cranks enamored with the likes of Barry Goldwater, whose trouncing in the 1964 election appeared to confirm the marginality of conservative ideas. As it turns out, Goldwater’s landslide defeat marked a key moment in modern conservatism’s rebirth, ushering in an era of Republican dominance in the formerly Democratic South and fracturing the New Deal coalition that until then had seemed impregnable.
Four decades later, another Arizona Senator, John McCain, clearly senses that the movement Goldwater helped to inspire is in need of a makeover, at least of its image. McCain’s carefully choreographed visits to places like Youngstown, Ohio; Inez, Kentucky; and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on his recent “It’s Time for Action” tour were designed to signal that less privileged Americans will not be invisible to him, as they were to Bush. Then again, voters have witnessed this before–Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000. While McCain promises to be different, he has also suggested the government should do little to assist families engulfed by the subprime mortgage crisis. He has tried to have it both ways on foreign policy as well, assembling a team of advisers drawn equally from the realist and neoconservative camps. McCain has criticized the Bush Administration’s unilateralism while slamming those who want to “cut and run” from Iraq and indicating his openness to trying regime change in neighboring Iran.
More than ever before, McCain must hope his reputation as a maverick will lead voters to forget he’s actually a conservative Republican. He will undoubtedly try to overcome the baggage his party carries by framing his campaign less around issues than character: the plainspoken war hero running against an out-of-touch liberal elitist. Should his opponent be Barack Obama, we will surely be hearing plenty more about flag pins and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The strategy might succeed, but it also risks reinforcing the impression that while one party is promising change, the other is reaching into its familiar bag of tricks to disguise the fact that it is offering more of the same. “The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail,” argued Gingrich in his recent article in Human Events.
It’s a bit early to say whether Gingrich will be proven right, or for that matter whether the Age of Bush has brought an era to a definitive close. But at the least, it has shattered an illusion, leaving the right in need not merely of an image makeover but of structural repair, something McCain almost surely won’t give it, and thus giving progressives an opportunity they have not had in a long time. As historian Rick Perlstein puts it, “Conservatives have always been able to say, ‘just wait until we get control of the government–then you’ll see the wonderful things we can do.’ Well, the dog finally caught the car it was chasing, and most of the country thinks the result has been nothing but ruin.”