Thesis #1: Conservatism since 1980 has been a fraud and its exposure as such only comes with a perfect storm of George W., Barack Obama, and our financial meltdown. We forget that at the same time Ronald Reagan came in as President, the world also saw the end of the Social Democrats in West Germany and the Labour Party in the UK. (On the other hand, Mitterand's Socialists took over in France). What we were living through was the end of the old post World War Two political establishment. It was not the Second Coming.
This comes from Ross Douthat's Moderate Republicans, Reformist Conservatives, and Other Animals:
From my perch here in the Midwest, Conservatism appealed to the idea that government was no longer working and that what was stifling us was the fat cats in the East. Liberalism lost its working class connections. Better historians than myself might put the breakdown date as 1968 and that Nixon's implosion into resignation only delayed the reaction in this country. (I recall Thatcher coming into power before Reagan). What we forget now is how conservative Carter was - such a Southern break from our Northern orthodoxy. Oh, how much opposition he brought down on him from his fellow Democrats which brings to mind that there are two ways for us to have a divided government: 1) have one party control the legislature and the other the presidency, and 2) let Democrats control it all.)One alternative path forward - and only one, out of many - is a reformist conservatism that tries to craft a new right-of-center domestic-policy agenda, one better attuned than the current Republican agenda to the set of challenges facing middle and working-class America. This sort of reformism is associated with a group of writers that would include people like Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum, Yuval Levin, David Brooks, Reihan and myself - and, if you cast a wider net, perhaps figures ranging from Jim Manzi to Rod Dreher to Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner. As the list suggests, it's not an ideologically coherent group by any means, with divergent views on issues ranging from abortion (Ramesh and I are pro-life, Frum and Brooks are pro-choice) to foreign policy (where I'm an outlier, being more in the realist than the neoconservative camp) to the wisdom of choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain's veep. And even on the basic domestic-policy questions there's considerable disagreement. Frum, Ramesh and I are more restrictionist on immigration than, say, Brooks and Gerson. Frum favors a carbon tax, Manzi opposes it. Ramesh is to my right on size-of-government questions, while David Brooks is probably well to my left. Ramesh had some unkind things to say about David Frum's book. I had some unkind things to say about Michael Gerson's. Etc.
What was clear to me by 1984 was that Reagan had no use for people my age who had not made their first million - or anyone else who had not made their million. Not that most people will admit that now. No, Reagan had the talent of knowing what people wanted to hear and giving it to them in a form that appealed to them so much that they voted for him. Remember welfare queens?
Nor would anyone admit how radical was the Conservative program. I do not think most people figured that out until George W. appeared on the scene. Conservatives conserved nothing but their own hold on power. Ask yourself what did Reagan actually accomplish out of his Conservative agenda?
- Make abortion illegal? No.
- End the Cold War? No by himself. (Consider what might have happened if Andropov instead of Gorbachev was running the USSR.)
- Reduce the size of government? Not hardly.
Thesis #2 - the conservatives took their own propaganda too much to heart. Maureen Dowd touches on something along these lines in Who's The Question Mark? with her questions about McCain's campaign strategy.
This also comes from Ross Douthat's Moderate Republicans, Reformist Conservatives, and Other Animals:
The few times this year I subjected myself to Limbaugh I came away with the image of the man frothing at the mouth. It appears that Mr. Douthat does not buy Mr. Limbaugh's claim of being only an entertainer. Neither do I. To the conservatives' detriment and the good fortune for the country, Limbaugh is not William F. Buckley, Jr.. I strongly suspect that Mr. Limbaugh does think that he has the power to define conservatism.And no, I wouldn't trust the rebuilding of conservatism to any of these people. But nobody was going to entrust it to them anyway: Scott McClellan, Bill Weld and Christopher Hitchens were not going to be the architects of a new Republican majority in any world you care to imagine. Indeed, you could even flat-out say "good riddance" to them, as Limbaugh wants to do ... if you had a plan for finding converts to conservatism somewhere else. But Limbaugh doesn't have a plan, and what he and others are doing is using the McClellans of the world to pre-emptively discredit anyone else who thinks the GOP needs to reform, rather than retrench. You moderate Republicans, he says: You wanted John McCain, you got him, and now you're all jumping ship! But everybody who disagrees with Limbaugh isn't jumping ship, and going forward the Right doesn't just face a binary choice between Limbaugh's conservatism and McCain's "moderate Republicanism," let alone between Limbaugh and Bill Weld.
Mr. Limbaugh will have no plan. His stance as victim attracts his listeners. No one can say that Rush Limbaugh is not a good steward to his advertisers and their revenue.
I hear people say that the country is center-right and that Obama is too liberal. Nonsense. At best we are a centrist country. Other than John McCain and Sarah Palin no one with any education seriously thinks that the Democrats are Socialists. Anyone who takes the time to do a little research will learn both of our parties are to the right of Britain's Conservative Party. Or to paraphrase Kevin Phillips, the American Democratic Party is the second most capitalistic party in the world with the foremost being our Republican Party.
If Obama does win on Tuesday, the Conservatives will face something they have no tools to deal with. They still speak (and therefore still think in) slogans from 1980. George W. brought back a truth forgotten since the death of the last New Dealer: Big Government was a tool of the Republicans to protect Big Business as the expense of its citizens. Obama knows the difference between effective and big government. (Amazing how those decry Big Government do not also question Big Business for where else have our politicians learned that big has its advantage?) Nor do the Republicans face a feckless Democratic Party and candidate. Obama is not Mondale, Dukakis, Gore or Kerry. He is not even Bill Clinton. I put Obama down as the right man at the right time. I suspect he has studied our history closely and he has thought hard on our last twenty years. Limbaugh and the other Conservatives will try to bend him into their cartoon version of liberals and politics and American history. I do not think it will be Obama who gets bent.
(Frank Rich captures what has gone wrong with all the campaigns against Obama:
Obama tapped into our desire to end this playing one American against another. I wonder if he would have been successful but for George W. Bush. Karl Rove spoke of a Republican ascendancy after the last election - even though it was a damned close election. Since then W accomplished one great thing: he exposed the radical nature of Conservatism and its hypocrisy. I cannot imagine that the more ardent and intelligent anti-abortion types have not come to realize that the Republican support for them is a sham. If it were not a sham, then why did the Republicans not propose a constitutional amendment while they controlled the House and Senate for most of this decade? Nor can I imagine the libertarian wing found the Bush government's spying on us so attractive. Has not the military found that the Republicans talk out of both sides of their mouths when they talk about supporting the troops - that they now know Bush means supporting him and his ambitions when he speaks of supporting the troops?
After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.)
Americans want common sense out of their government and politicians - not just ideology. It has been almost a hundred years since a purely ideological party (or a party emphasizing its ideology) approached anything like success in our country. I say between 1968 and 1980, the Democratic Party fought internally between common sense and ideology. It took Reagan and Clinton to bring us back into common sense. Then we thought the way to success to be Republicans-lite still shy of standing for something. We have someone now who has both common sense and does not back down from a fight. Put that down as another item putting the Conservatives into disarray.
I think the last few years we have learned that the Bush-Cheney-Rove fear mongering and Conservative whining about being victimized by a vast left-wing conspiracy are false. Frankly, the last six years have been years of increasing depression for me and I am not so sure that there is much to salvage personally. I suspect that this has lead me to supporting Obama. I think many of us see in Obama someone who understands our disgust at the shabbiness we have allowed the Republicans to lead us into as a country. He does present the possibility that we can overcome the traps we have let the Conservatives and the Bushies have set for us. (And take a look at Ncholas Kristoff's Rejoin the World for one trap and prescription for getting us out.)We can be frightened by fake bogeymen but it does not last forever. The reaction can be terrible. We will see just how terrible it will be this coming Wednesday morning. I think the Conservatives will remain in disarray until they can build a more frightening scarecrow.