Regardless of what happens Nov. 4 — whether Barack Obama wins handily or John McCain ekes out a victory — Democrats are almost certain to increase their margins in the House and Senate. In the aftermath of this election, Republicans and conservatives need to examine what has gone wrong and why.
To be useful, those inquiries must be broken into parts. The GOP is in bad shape; conservatism is not.
Consider: Republican politicians are viewed as having “gone native.” Political and personal scandals have tarnished the GOP's image. The early years of the Iraq war were badly mismanaged. The financial crisis, fairly or not, is laid at the feet of Republicans. Around 90 percent of the nation believes America is on the wrong track, and the GOP is perceived as the responsible party.
In addition, there is a natural disposition toward change after a two-term president; that increases when the president's approval rating hovers around 25 percent. And in this election cycle, many more Republican Senate seats are up for reelection than are Democratic ones (22 vs. 12).
But it is a mistake to assume that significant GOP losses, should they occur, are a referendum on conservatism. In part, the GOP's problems stem from being seen as having become less conservative and less principled (think “Bridge to Nowhere”).
McCain, while holding some conservative positions, has never been the standard-bearer for the conservative cause. Moreover, America remains, in the main, a center-right nation. Twice as many respondents to an October Newsweek poll said they consider themselves to be conservative as said they were liberal (40 percent vs. 20 percent). And a Fox News poll taken at the start of October found that 76 percent of respondents believe lower taxes and smaller government are preferable to higher taxes and larger government.
And an Obama victory would not signal an ideological pivot.
Indeed, Barack Obama is, in important ways, a testimony to the conservative disposition of the country. He resists the label “liberal” as if it were lethal (which it is in presidential politics) and has praised President Ronald Reagan for “delivering the right message at the right time” regarding the size of government and regulations.
Obama has tacked right since winning the Democratic nomination. He repeats often that he favors tax cuts for almost everyone. He stresses that he is against a government-run health-care system and supports charter schools and merit pay. He has professed a newfound attachment to the Second Amendment, terrorist surveillance, offshore drilling and applying the death penalty for rape of a child. He speaks about lowering the number of abortions rather than highlighting his plans to eliminate restrictions on them. Obama trumpets his willingness to engage in cross-border strikes in Pakistan and has toughened his views on meeting with dictators such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
An Obama victory, then, would be a partisan, rather than an ideological, win.
But saying that conservatism is in better shape than the GOP is not to say it doesn't face challenges. It would be silly and self-defeating for Republicans to repudiate conservatism's core principles of a strong national defense, limited government, constitutionalism and protection for unborn children. Yet it would be shortsighted to believe that the issues that worked more than a quarter-century ago will carry the day.
People forget that Reagan was a creative intellectual figure; facing “stagflation,” he introduced supply-side economics. In the aftermath of Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he argued that rollback rather than containment was the way to win the Cold War. A deeply principled conservative, he crafted innovative policies to meet the demands of his time.
Conservatives are in a similar position today. Issues such as welfare and crime, which helped conservatism achieve dominance, are not as potent as they were. And while taxes and spending remain important, stagnant wages and middle-class anxieties, the housing and credit crisis, health care, immigration, energy, and the environment also command domestic attention. Conservatives need to convince the public that they have a compelling agenda to address these issues.
Beyond discrete issues, conservatism needs a governing vision that builds on its commitment to liberty and limited government. Among the most promising is reforming our public institutions to meet the demands of the 21st century.
The massive collapse in confidence in our financial, political, educational and intelligence institutions is among the most important developments of our time; positioning conservatives as the advocates for modern, accountable and responsive institutions would produce a governing blueprint that meets the challenges of this era and begins to win back public confidence.
The wilderness years are never pleasant, but if Republicans find themselves there after Nov. 4, they have an opportunity to revive the GOP. If Republicans become champions of an ambitious conservative reform agenda, they will begin the road back to political dominance.
— The writer, formerly deputy assistant to President Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.