Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

The Conservatives Come Back From the Dead

4 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size
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.
What happened?
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.

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.

24 Comments

Filter by:
superap1r

I truthfully believe that everyone is making the mistake of confusing the Tea Party and the "Conservatives". I believe that this "turnover" I guess you can call it, is actually the movement of the Tea Party. The main differences between the Tea Party and the Republicans are that: (1)The Tea Party is really about getting rid of the current government and its policies while Republicans want to control the government (just like Democrats, but unlike Democrats they want to stymie the welfare state and get a lot of the things that were created from Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society repealed)(2)the Tea Party ia really a voting force rather than a running party while Republicans are a mainstream party that are run more by the popular beliefs of their constituents (because, let's face it, Republicans are main stream and they need to make sure that they do what they can to get re-elected while the Tea Party is the party that elects). That's the biggest thing for people to understand, in my opinoin. The Tea Party is a party; it is a group of people that vote. That is a fact that I believe both Republicans and Democrats alike underestimated. It seems to me like Republicans thought that the Tea Party was a party that could be used to get support for McCain, and the Democrats thought that the Tea Party was insignificant.

November 16 2010 at 10:34 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Le Fay

WARNING: With the Senate and the House in the 112th Congress under the microscope of the Voters, they had better "hit the ground running" or there will be further rath of the electorate for change in 2012th which seriously and clearly puts the race for President up for grabs leaving the incumbent as a one term office holder. The challenge by the voters is to have their eleced officials now and in the future to get the peoples business done, first and foremost, by listening to the people and producing results. One of the most serious issues is to remove any and all "perks," for example such as Healthcare at levels beyond that available to the voters, unless they pay for it out of their personal income; Limited Expense Acounts; No chauffered limosines; Limit reimbursement to the cost of public air transportation. Also, by forcing these elected officials into greater contact with the voters. They must learn what is important to the voters instead of guilding their pockets with the overly generous retirement and other monies they potentially may receive for public service. Lastly, suspend all rights of voting to those elected legislative officials who have pending criminal charges against them in order to force expiditious resolution and in the event of a guilty finding, automatic expulsion. Please recall a substantial number of these legislative office holders of the 111th had charges pending. "The People" need honesty and real integrety out of our legislators or we are lost. Afterall, it is our vote that counts. So beware!

November 15 2010 at 1:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

People now know what the progressive agenda is about. The trouble is now they are changing the education system. It does not teach the consitution any more, they sing a song about old dead white men(past presidents), they teach a social agenda not what this country was founded on.

November 14 2010 at 8:34 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
bdyman101

its funny ...tea party people want to get the country back to the constitution and bill of right....the liberal democrats want to change the country and constitution and bill of right to a socialist country...that in its self should tell any American who is right and who is wrong....lmao hellooooooooo didn't our founding father come from socialist communists ruled countries?????

November 07 2010 at 8:13 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
saint9roi

came back from the dead like zombies and now they want to eat your brains: bachman's first act of the election was to discredit the teaparty right off the bat.

November 05 2010 at 11:24 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

sfamilyent3:05 PM Nov 2, 2010 I'm surprised that so many Americans are buying into the conservative propaganda... ************** You mean, as opposed to liberal propaganda?...

November 02 2010 at 9:12 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

Thanks Obama! We couldn't have done it without you...

November 02 2010 at 9:11 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

Nothing snaps a latent conservative to attention so fast as the assertion that we plan to borrow our way out of debt so as to be able to spend our way to thrift. These preposterous policies were the best the Obama/Pelosi/Reid/Frank?Dodd/Goldman Sachs?Soros alliance could come up with as pretext for raiding the public treasury to "reward their friends and punish their enemies" ( the President's words paraphrased, not my own).

November 02 2010 at 6:29 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment
Scott Jones

Michael, that presidential "paraphrase" is actually a paraphrase of a paraphrase. He never even said anything like that. It's from an interview on Univision about Latino voters either "sitting out the election" or going to the polls to "punish" the politicians they don't like and "reward" the politicians who work for them. It's basically, EXACTLY the same at the Tea Party mentality.

November 02 2010 at 6:36 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
sfamilyent

I'm surprised that so many Americans are buying into the conservative propaganda... The Republicans and Tea Party are riding an emotional wave of popularity. Let's hope that once they get control of the country that they come to their senses and do what is right for our nation and our people... There is about 50 years of poor international trade and economic policy that needs to be fixed... I'm looking for unemployment to go down, real median income for the bottom 80% to rise significantly, and for balanced international trade. If the Republicans get control and they don't deliver, and we don't think the Democrats can deliver; then, who do we turn to next?

November 02 2010 at 3:05 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
roxcampbe

What can i say, we all know that we have been lied to, and most of all the scare tactics must have worked,, for some,, they say a lot of woman and latinos have shifted to the gop,,, its because they know who to target. Especially the older people that dont want their social security to be messed with,, pay attention people,, it can only get worse with republicans,, i have not seen where they care for every day american people,, they are totally out of touch with every day people, the working people,, we are people too,, we dont have to have millions to show we are someone.

November 01 2010 at 9:20 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to roxcampbe's comment
Patrick

I've been reading the comments on both sides, and it's obvious very few, if any of you, know much about economics, and it's blatantly obvious that the average Obamaholic has never even read a word of the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, or the Federalist Papers. Thanks, public education. The American people's ignorance and complacency are why the government has become the monstrosity that it is today, and it's what the beast feeds on.

November 07 2010 at 5:35 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

FEATURED VIDEO

View All »

Discover inspiring videos on TEDWomen where people are reshaping our future with ideas.

View the Video »

Follow Politics Daily


Politics Home Page : Roll Call