Soon after Barack Obama's inauguration, Sam Tanenhaus opined in The New Republic
and later in a stylistic book, "The Death of Conservatism," that liberalism had won a lasting political triumph in the 2008 elections and that conservatives were the wave of the past. Tanenhaus, who edits the influential Week in Review section of The New York Times, was expressing post-election conventional wisdom when he declared that conservative doctrine had "not only been defeated but discredited" by Obama's election.
In Tanenhaus's view Republicans then compounded their predicament by opposing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the stimulus package that was supposed to lift the nation out of recession. Two years later the U.S. unemployment rate is still pushing 10 percent and the price tag of the ARRA has risen in Congressional Budget Office estimates to $814 billion.
Another 2009 book, by the Democratic strategist James Carville, put the case bluntly. In "40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation
," Carville contended that Republicans had put themselves on the wrong side of history by appealing to a shrunken and mostly Southern base. Democrats meanwhile had harnessed the demography of the future by identifying themselves with the aspirations of young people, women and Latinos, the nation's fastest growing minority.
But on the eve of the 2010 election, a New York Times poll
has found that a majority of women favor Republican candidates for the first time since the Reagan years and that young people (not to mention independents and Catholics) have also swung back to the GOP. If the polls are even halfway right, Republicans next week will regain the House of Representatives, make big inroads in the Senate, pick up at least a half dozen governorships and also gain control of several legislatures that next year through redistricting based on the 2010 census will shape the congressional map for the next decade.
My late, great editor Richard Harwood at The Washington Post said that when reporters used the word "surprised" in a story it usually meant that the reporter was surprised. And surprised the media has certainly been. But it is not just political reporters and liberal bloggers who failed to anticipate the turnaround.
The Conservative Surprise
"I've been absolutely shocked at what has happened," says Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor of the flagship conservative magazine National Review (to which I've been an occasional contributor). Nordlinger said he believed after Obama's triumph that the United States was well on its way to a "social democracy on the Swedish model," a view shared by many conservatives particularly after passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, known by its critics as Obamacare. As Nordlinger sees it, next Tuesday's election is critical for the Republicans and the conservative movement. "It means we're out of the wilderness long before anyone expected us to be," Nordlinger said. "It means Republicans and conservatives are back."
Or maybe they never went away. Writing in the current issue of National Review
, Rammesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry argue that in 2006 and 2008 voters "fired Tom DeLay's congressional majority and quit on President [George W.] Bush" but did not "become latter-day McGovernites." They cite as evidence a July 2009 Gallup report
which said that by a 2-1 margin Americans said their views had become more conservative in recent years. They might also have taken notice of an even more remarkable August 2009 Gallup finding
that persons who call themselves conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals in all 50 states. In this survey 40 percent of Americans said they were conservative, 35 percent said they were moderate and only 21 percent said they were liberal. Conservatives have long outnumbered liberals in Gallup surveys but their percentages declined during the last Bush years.
Now, in advance of this election, percentages have soared both for Republicans and conservatives. Earlier this week [on Oct. 27] Gallup found
that 55 percent of likely voters favor Republicans or lean Republican. The comparable Democratic figure is 40 percent. This is the highest percentage for Republicans since the Reagan years. Of these voters 48 percent said they were conservative, 32 percent moderate and 20 percent liberal.
The magnitude of the Republican/conservative comeback may be even greater than these raw numbers show, for the electorate has become more liberal on a number of social issues, notably single-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. What the electorate has NOT become more liberal on is government spending and government overreach. Poll after poll shows that Americans are concerned about the prospects of long-term deficits and the soaring national debt and believe that President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress are trying to do too much too fast.
Behind the Republican Comeback
Four factors have fueled the Republican resurgence.
The first is public dismay with the slow pace of the recovery. The second and related factor is the perceived ineffectiveness of the stimulus and various government bailouts. The third is reaction to Obamacare, which the White House wrongly expected would become popular after it became law. It has not. Some features, such as preventing insurance companies from dropping sick people from coverage, are indeed popular. But other provisions, such as requiring employers to provide and individuals to acquire health insurance are viewed unfavorably by a majority of the public. Overall in polls the health care bill is pretty much a wash, but it is revealing that the only Democrats who are mentioning the measure in their campaign ads are the ones who voted against it. The fourth factor, both effect and cause, is the tea party, of which more in a minute.
Of the first three factors, Nordlinger believes that it is the stimulus package that has most excited conservatives. "My conservative friends feel that the stimulus wasted a trillion dollars as much as if we'd put the money in parking lot and burned it," said Nordlinger, who acknowledges that this may not be literally true.
In fact, although most economists agree that the stimulus helped the states and saved some jobs but their judgments sound like one hand clapping. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus saved from one to three million jobs, a range so broad as to be almost meaningless. At the low end of this estimate that's exceptionally little bang for the buck. In an economy in which nearly 15 million people are unemployed and millions of uncounted others have stopped looking for work, the $814 billion might have been more stimulative if the money had simply been given to the jobless.
Enter the Tea Party
Out of this morass arose the tea party, the latest in a long line of populist protest movements that have sprung up in the United States when the economy is sour. This one differs from many of its predecessors, however, in that it lacks a visionary (or demagogic) leader such as Huey Long or Ross Perot at the head of the movement to lead followers to the promised land. Not even Sarah Palin, who makes the hearts of many tea partiers go pit-a-pat, has any leadership role in a movement that is more truly grassroots than any other of our time. Again, this has been a surprise to liberals and conservatives alike. "None of us thought that a movement dedicated to limited government would have much appeal," Nordlinger said.
Stuart K. Spencer, the premier Republican political strategist of the Reagan era, believes that the tea party has brought enormous energy to the campaign and will deserve much credit if the Republicans win the House. At the same time, says Spencer, the more eccentric tea party candidates, as in Delaware, may have cost the Republicans the opportunity to win the Senate. Some tea partiers could care less. As journalist Christopher Caldwell observed in The New York Times
, 70 percent of tea partiers are conservative independents, not Republicans, and they are charting their own course. Although the GOP has embraced the tea party for reasons of convenience, the tea party has not returned the hug.
Some of the same people who a year ago were forecasting Democratic hegemony as far as the eye could see are now saying that the tea party will pose problems for Republicans once the election is over. Maybe so. But Nordlinger believes the tea party will hold Republican feet to the fire on spending issues which, to conservatives, would not be a bad thing.
However that turns out, Democrats might take post-election solace if they recognize that the surge of their opponents has been made possible by a convergence of conservative values and liberal ideas.
"Americans are conservative," the columnist George F. Will said many years ago. "What they want to conserve is the New Deal." Indeed, however cynical it may sound, Republicans who not so long ago were talking of privatizing the bedrock New Deal program of Social Security now present themselves as the program's defenders for future generations. Republicans also talk of saving Medicare, the great add-on to the New Deal by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. That's smart politics since older Americans depend on Social Security for most of their income and Medicare for most of their health needs. Any party that tries to eviscerate either of these programs will surely face the wrath of the voters.
So take heart, liberals. The conservatives you prematurely buried two years ago aren't going away, but neither are you. The Republicans are not going the way of the Whigs. President Obama has two years in which to make a course correction. The two-party system lives.