Twelve years ago, the election postmortems were nearly unanimous. George Bush had lost the presidency due to the intolerance of the religious right and other social conservatives on display at the Republican National Convention in Houston. Bill Clinton’s victory was a popular affirmation of Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution. If the GOP was ever to win another national election, it would have to drop its pro-life platform plank, family-values rhetoric and appeals to the menacing Bible bumpkins who were so hopelessly out of touch with a country now firmly controlled by enlightened baby boomers.
Instead the party thrived by ignoring the advice of neoliberal magazine and Sunday newspaper scribblers. In truth, the Christian right was the largest voting bloc to stick with the first President Bush in 1992, allowing him to hold onto 17 states and finish within five points of Clinton in the popular vote. Then in 1994, Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in four decades when social conservatives joined with tax-cutters and gun owners – in what the media might have described as the coalition of the “poor, uneducated and easy to command” – in a revolt against the Clinton Democrats.
Now George W. Bush has won a second term with the first popular majority in 16 years and the Republicans have increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. The social conservatives that conventional wisdom had long assumed to be an albatross provided the GOP with its margin of victory. The exit polls found that 22 percent of Americans listed moral values as their most important issue, a higher percentage than for any other topic, including Iraq, the economy, health care and even terrorism. Eighty percent of these voters supported the president.
Eleven states, from the Deep South to Oregon, decisively passed ballot initiatives reaffirming the traditional definition of marriage. Immigration realists gained congressional seats – half the candidates supported by Congressman Tom Tancredo’s Team America PAC prevailed – and won on Proposition 200 in Arizona. From supply-siders to the NRA, each major group within the conservative movement could point to Election Day successes.
Yet conservatives are in many ways at a crossroad. Despite the popularity of certain conservative ideas – and the demonstrable power of cultural conservatism at the ballot box – the last four years have seen the right too often engaged in aimless wandering. Conservatives have gravitated away from even minimal spending restraint and fiscal discipline, much less active support for limited constitutional government, at a time when federal entitlement programs threaten to push us into bankruptcy. While 9/11 reawakened a great many Americans to the fact that the world is a very dangerous place, too many conservatives have responded by reverting to their Cold War posture, simply substituting Islamic fundamentalism for Soviet communism.
Elements of the right have been content to offer a mere mirror image of the left. Just as post-Vietnam liberals developed an unhealthy phobia of projecting military strength, some post-9/11 conservatives have become almost cavalier about the use of force and have developed an exaggerated faith in the capacity of military might to change the world reminiscent of the left’s high hopes for the welfare state. Where the left grew feckless, the right grew reckless.
There are new challenges for the right that do not lend themselves easily to the formulations developed in the last 40 years’ liberal-conservative debates. How, for example, do we reconcile our long and justified support for free markets with a strong national identity in the age of global capitalism? How do we continue to cut taxes and foster a growth-friendly economy while accepting the largest undertakings of the welfare state as immutable? Conservative opinion leaders should ponder these and many other questions, but too often we ban anything that is not politically practical from our discussions and resort instead to happy Republican cheerleading.
This writer has often been a critic of President Bush, seeing his administration as a force that encourages some of these unfortunate conservative tendencies. But his reelection – along with the election of a Republican-controlled Congress further to the right than the previous one – provides conservatives numerous opportunities.
Grassroots conservatives should insist that the GOP deliver on their platform promises and not merely pander at election time. Don’t let the federal marriage amendment become what the human life amendment was in the 1980s – a convenient way for Republican politicians to appear socially conservative without actually having to do something that might pass. We should use the next four years to come up with effective means to thwart social engineers in black robes by protecting traditional marriage and advancing the culture of life the president frequently invokes.
We should hold President Bush to his pledges on tax reform, keeping tax cuts permanent and press him to rediscover his veto pen and traditional Republican fiscal soundness. Now is the time to pass expanded medical savings accounts and allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes. Instead of the failed big-government and briefly bipartisan approaches of No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit, the administration and Republican majorities should promote real free-market reforms.
Conservatives should be as serious about judicial appointments as liberal watchdog groups like People for the American Way. The president promised to continue naming strict constructionists to the federal bench; let’s make sure he honors that pledge in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy, rather than letting Arlen Specter pick the next justice.
The election of Republicans Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint to the Senate from Oklahoma and South Carolina, respectively, provides the upper chamber’s GOP conference with two principled conservatives willing to rock the boat or, to switch metaphors, move the ball. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Georgia’s Lynn Westmoreland and Nebraska’s Jeff Fortenberry are among the conservative standouts in the House. The rank and file right should look to them to accomplish policy objectives and not be satisfied with conservative rhetoric or attacks on liberal bugbears like Hillary Clinton.
The conservative commentariat should be willing to go even further. Shelve the RNC talking points. Contemplate heresies on issues bubbling beneath the surface of American politics. Forget about what’s politically possible right now and plant seeds for the future. We’re no longer in the midst of a tight campaign and the GOP has fairly stable congressional majorities. If not now, when?
Some counsel conciliatory moves that will calm liberals disconcerted by defeat. Leaving aside the fact that this is never suggested when Democrats win, there is nothing wrong with pursuing the policies one believes will benefit the country even if that assessment is not shared by others. If this is what the often-predicted national Republican majority looks like, it is a majority forged by conservatives. Conservatives should seek to achieve as much through their majority party as was accomplished by the New Deal Democrats. And ultimately, we should force the Republicans to prove that they are sincere in the positions they take when soliciting our support on Election Day.
We would be missing the point of winning elections – and of the people holding their elected representatives accountable – to settle for anything less.