Has Bush Killed Conservative Movement?
Mike Tomasky sees 2008 as a defining election that could signal the end of the Conservative Movement as we have known it in America. The country threw out the Republican Congress in November 2006 and the polls overwhelmingly show that Americans think President Bush is doing a lousy job.
But what lesson will they take? That conservatism itself is exhausted and without answers to the problems that confront American and the world today? Or will they conclude that the problem hasn’t been conservatism per se, just Bush, and that a conservatism that is competent and comparatively honest will suit them just fine?
Conservatives and the Republican presidential candidates hope and argue that it’s the latter. They largely endorse and in some cases vow to expand on the Bush administration’s policies – Mitt Romney’s infamous promise to “double” the size of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, notably. Like Bush, they vow that tax cuts, deregulation and smaller government will solve every domestic problem. Where they try to distinguish themselves from Bush is on competence. Romney talks up his corporate success, Rudy Giuliani his prowess as mayor of New York.
The Democrats aren’t as full-throated in opposition to all this as one would hope – they dance away from the word “liberal” and they don’t really traffic in head-on philosophical critiques of conservative governance. That said, though, all the leading Democrats are running on pretty strongly progressive platforms. On healthcare, energy and global warming, all promise a very different direction for the country. Hillary Clinton has even inched to her husband’s left on trade issues. Even given her innate caution and rhetorical hawkishness on foreign policy, it’s fair to say that Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are making a forceful case for a clean ideological break.
The rubber will hit the road next summer and autumn. Then the Republicans will tell voters that the Democratic nominee has proposed trillions of dollars’ worth of new programmes and will inevitably raise taxes to pay for them. The Democrat will need to stand her or his ground and, while obviously not being cavalier about taxes, present a vision of a different kind of society. There are signs that 51% of the voters may be ready to embrace it.
This presumes, of course, that the election will be over social policy rather than foreign policy. If so, Democrats will undoubtedly win, as free stuff is awfully hard to resist, especially when the counter-argument has to be made in 20 second sound bytes and the Republicans have lost any credibility when talking about fiscal responsibility.
If the debate remains on the foreign policy agenda, though, the GOP has a chance. This may seem counterintuitive with polls showing roughly 80 percent of the public is tired of the war in Iraq and blames the incompetence of Republicans for our problems. Still, tough talk on terrorism and national security almost always wins out when the voters feel there’s a legitimate threat.
The Democrats will certainly nominate a slightly more liberal candidate in 2008 than it has since 1988, most likely Hillary Clinton. The Republican field is wide open, although most of the plausible nominees are somewhat less socially conservative than any since 1976; arguably ever. It’s rather unlikely that it will be a referendum on conservatism.
Regardless, however, it’s incredibly unlikely that one election will seal either party’s fate. Years of drubbings in presidential campaigns forced the Democrats to reform themselves into a more centrist party. The result was two terms for “New Democrat” Bill Clinton and a narrow and controversial defeat for a follow-on by his vice president and follow DLCer Al Gore. Republicans tacked more to the center in response, nominating “Compassionate Conservative” George W. Bush in 2000. That’s the nature of American democracy and has been for decades.
American politics is, as columnist George Will described it long ago, akin to a football game played entirely between the 40 yard lines. The amount of ideological variation within the mainstream is narrow, indeed, by the standards of Western democracies. Indeed, by European standards, we’ll almost certainly elect a conservative in 2008.