The Long Road Back

In November 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency by a larger margin than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He carried three normally solid Republican states--Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana--and very nearly took Montana. Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress, gaining in 2006 and 2008 a combined total of 52 seats in the House of Representatives and 13 in the Senate.

More ominous is the information contained in the exit polls. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won voters under 30 by 20 points. The elder Bush won the young again in 1988. Obama won them by more than 30 points.

Obama gained a majority of the vote among those holding four-year college degrees, something no Democrat has done since 1964. He won a majority among married women with children, historically among the most conservative and Republican subgroups in the US electorate. He even triumphed among voters earning over $200,000 a year.

These results were not flukes, nor responses to Iraq. On the contrary, they represent the culmination of trends that have been visible since the mid-term elections of 1998, when the Democrats scored congressional gains based on an unexpected surge of support among educated and affluent suburbanites.

In retrospect, the most important political fact about the Bush years was how poorly the Republicans did at the polls in those years of seeming ascendancy. In 2000, not only did George W. Bush fail to win the popular vote, but the Republicans dropped two seats in the House and four in the Senate. In 2004, Bush won re-election by the narrowest margin of any re-elected president in history.

So: a wake-up call? Not exactly.

As British Conservatives know all too well, it takes a defeated political party a long, long time to get the message.

It's almost a law of politics that a defeated political party recoils upon its political base. Goldwater follows Nixon. McGovern follows Humphrey. Mondale follows Carter.

Republicans seem to be making up their mind that they lost in 2006 and 2008 because they were not conservative enough.

In the same way, Republicans seem to be making up their mind that they lost in 2006 and 2008 because they were not conservative enough. Like the proverbial Englishman on vacation, they seem to think that if the locals aren't responding to what they have to say, the thing to do is to say it louder.

And are they getting loud!

Obama has been in office nearly three months. Far and away his most important initiative over that time has been to continue George W. Bush's costly Troubled Asset Rescue Plan. Next most important: a mortgage rescue plan that likewise follows ideas bequeathed by his predecessor. Obama has not yet raised taxes. He has not yet introduced a healthcare plan. He has not yet detailed a climate-change policy. He has declined to rescue the automobile companies.

During the campaign, Democrats promised pro-union changes in labour law. In office, one Democratic senator after another has broken ranks against this. Republicans have mused that Democrats might alter broadcasting regulations in ways inimical to conservative talk radio. No sign of action there either.

Yet to listen to Fox News and other conservative media, you'd think we were living in Czechoslovakia in the final hours before the 1948 communist coup. Anchors end interviews by solemnly pledging to defend liberty and oppose tyranny. The network's rising star Glenn Beck has mused about the coming turn to totalitarianism--and warned his audience that he has not been able to 'debunk' fears that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is constructing an archipelago of concentration camps for political opponents of the Obama administration.

The Republican congressional delegation is less hysterical, but not more convincing. While free-market economists have devised credible alternative economic plans--emphasising above all a year-long suspension of the 12.6 per cent Social Security payroll tax--congressional Republicans have either denied the seriousness of the downturn, or called for balancing the budget first, or united around a scattered grab-bag of tax proposals exciting only to the interest groups that would benefit from them.

There are signs of hope. Republicans can muster forward-looking governors: Jon Huntsman of Utah, for example, a Mandarin-speaking business-friendly conservative who has shown unusual openness on environmental issues and a softer line on social issues; Charlie Crist of Florida, who assembled a deal to restore Florida's uneconomic sugarlands as the state's environmentally vital Everglades; Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is bringing good government practices to a notoriously corrupt state; Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who has successfully extended health insurance coverage to more than 130,000 uninsured state residents.

Some conservative intellectuals have likewise grasped the need for new ideas. Two brainy young writers, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, argue for a socially conservative, economically populist GOP in their important new book, Grand New Party. (The 29-year-old Douthat has just received the ultimate US media accolade, a column in the New York Times.) Yuval Levin, President Bush's innovative Domestic Policy Council chairman, will--it is hoped--soon launch a revival of the much missed Public Interest, the landmark US public policy journal. The American Enterprise Institute, of which I am a fellow, has had an exciting shift to a scholarly new president, Arthur Brooks, author of important social science works on happiness and philanthropy. I'll make some claims on behalf of the website I edit, a forum for conservative reform and renewal titled NewMajority.com, which has run innovative and courageous pieces by young writers and veteran public servants.

If new leadership is on offer, however, it's not at all clear that there is as yet any corresponding following. The post-2008 mood among US Republicans bears an unhappy resemblance to the post-1997 mood among British Conservatives: a mood of resistance to change and irritation with the electorate. Perhaps it's a natural mood. But it's a very dangerous one.

In the end, of course, US Republicans will have to adapt, as British Conservatives have. Some things will change; some will be repackaged; some will be reaffirmed. The real and urgent question is: will this reform process go fast or slow? For the moment, the indications are: very slow indeed.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

David
Frum
  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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