Jonah Goldberg

Liberals look at the infighting within the red-state coalition and think they see signs of collapse. But what they really see is just plain old American politics. It looks catastrophic because liberals aren't in on the wheeling and dealing, and they want it to be catastrophic. Indeed, now that they are without a pie to carve up, they think ideological purity is everything.

And so do quite a few conservatives. I agree that these are trying times for our tribe. Compassionate conservatism wasn't necessarily an intellectual train wreck in the hands of conservative intellectuals such as Marvin Olasky, but when it was translated into a political agenda, it largely became a clever marketing ploy for constituent-pleasing pork and an attempt to prove to suburban soccer moms that Republicans are "nice."

The simple, tragic fact is that conservatism isn't popular. It just ain't. (Nor is doctrinaire liberalism, to be sure.) If you drafted a political program designed to implement National Review's idea of nirvana, it would get crushed at the polls. Americans like government more than card-carrying conservatives do. They value security where libertarians celebrate freedom, and they celebrate freedom where conservatives emphasize virtue.

Reagan conservatives came of age as an intellectual insurgency. They rode to glory on popular issues such as anti-communism, welfare reform and tax cuts (when taxes were really, really high). Today, those issues are either gone or less inspiring.

Enter George Bush, whose brand of compassionate conservatism abandoned or downplayed such conservative standbys as limited government, federalism and opposition to quotas in order to win, just as Bill Clinton abandoned the Ted Kennedy playbook. This can be lamentable, tactically or philosophically. For example, a majority of Americans, including African-Americans and Latinos, oppose racial preferences for the same reason conservatives do: Quotas are wrong. But politicians who say so sound "mean." So Bush defenestrated the issue.

Politicians do this sort of thing all the time because they care about winning elections. And here lies the irony. As the center-right majority in this country expands, conservatives become just another constituency, to be placated when possible, snubbed when necessary. So movement conservatives are panicky because they are less important to Republican success than they once were.

But conservatives were willing to overlook Bush's transgressions when he was riding high in the polls. Now that he's on the ropes, they claim Bush's apostasy is to blame, even though such apostasy got him elected in the first place. Such is the seduction of political power.

But liberals shouldn't be too giddy. After all, these are the problems that come from finding treasure. Liberals are still hunting for it in the wilderness.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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