John McCain’s almost miraculous comeback from near death as a viable candidate to the point of being the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee has put the American conservative movement in its most difficult spot since the rise of the right propelled Barry Goldwater to the GOP nomination in 1964. How the movement responds to this challenge will have very far reaching consequences for the next several decades. I have said that this election just might be the most critical since 1980 and possibly since 1932, and it is playing out just so, but the stakes are much higher for the Republicans and the conservative movement than for the Democrats and the left.
How did we get here? Well, in the first place, we conservatives have only ourselves to blame for painting ourselves into this corner. We allowed the revolutionary and euphoric election of 1994 to degenerate into a struggle to protect the perks of partisan power and the spoils of the majority. We looked the other way when our “compassionate” conservative President signed the campaign finance bill restricting political speech co-sponsored by John McCain, a bill creating a massive new drug entitlement program, an executive order expanding tariffs on imported steel, and an embarrassing. farm bill that in effect repealed the revolutionary Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, among other projects of “big government conservatism”. We didn’t seem to notice or care when Tom Delay replaced the Democratic lobby teams on K Street with Republican teams representing the same special pleaders in the misguided and unprincipled Republican “K Street Strategy” that resulted in total complicity in the more than quadrupling of “earmarks” that has totally undermined the credibility and historic GOP reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility and limited government.
Secondly, although the conservative movement suffers from the absence of a coalescing leader, the problem is more about ideas than personalities. Reagan came to town with two organizing principles–shrink government and win the Cold War. He then infused us with enough renewed confidence in the American experiment of the “city on a hill” that we accomplished the second objective and temporarily succeeded with the first one. But the issues now are more diffused, most of them don’t break out neatly along ideological lines, and don’t as readily lend themselves to movement politics. Enter a moderate maverick with a mixed conservative record who is a favorite of the talk shows and the favorite Republican of most liberals. The conservative movement gags–is this the guy who will preside over the reconstitution of the conservative movement and redefine the organizing principles?
My short answer is NO. But it is what it is, and I believe we must recognize that we are in a transition period during which the movement will need some time to sort things out and identify the next generation of principled leaders around whom to coalesce. They are out there (a good example from the left is Barack Obama–where was he six years ago?). Meanwhile, conservatism has been the movement of ideas for the past fifty years, but has recently lost its edge and needs to regain it, so the gritty work of issue development must kick into high gear. And everything but core principles should be on the table.
What about 2008? To me, it’s not pretty, but it’s simple: conservatives don’t have the luxury of accepting a loss to Clinton or Obama in hopes of a “cleansing” effect of the electorate in preparation for another revolution in two or four years. As Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal has noted, it’s “McCain or the wilderness” and possibly for a long time to come. So whenever I get the urge to be passive about this election and the choices, I remind myself of the only possible answer to this question: Who do you want as Commander in Chief and to appoint the next two Supreme Court justices? All else is at least debatable and we can fight about it on another day, but if we get the answer to this question wrong there might not be another day for a very long time. Watershed moment, indeed.