Unlike some who shall, in the interests of comity, remain nameless -- conservatives do not cry foul when they lose elections. They do not whine that the election was stolen, or secured through dirty campaign tricks, or otherwise illegitimately won. Instead, they ask themselves where they went wrong.
The National Review Institute, a think tank founded by the late William F. Buckley and now headed by the dynamic and perspicacious Kate O'Beirne, hosted a daylong conference in Washington, D.C., to examine where conservatives need to go from here. It was a very clarifying day.
Yes, the Democrats got a big win on Nov. 4 and there is no gainsaying that Republicans and conservatives were rejected. Then again, it would have defied 200 years of American history if the party holding the White House for two terms and presiding over a huge financial panic should have been successful. Add to that the essentially content-free McCain campaign and you have yourself a drubbing.
But did liberal ideas win? Identification with the Republican Party is down. But the number of voters who identify themselves as liberal (22 percent) is nearly identical to the results four years ago (21 percent). Thirty-four percent, the same as in 2004, still identify as conservatives. And while slightly more voters expressed a desire for more government activism in 2008 than in 2004, the panting eagerness in the press for a reprise of the New Deal (note the cover of Time magazine) is not widely shared by the electorate.
Lacking political strength for the battles to come, conservatives will have to rely on the strength of their ideas. The most important battle, Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center argued, will be health care. If health care is successfully nationalized in America, the case for a smaller and less bureaucratic state becomes immeasurably more difficult. Throughout the developed world, in countries that have adopted socialized medicine, every call to limit the size and scope of government is instantly caricatured as an attempt to take medicine away from the weak and sick. People become awfully attached to "free" medical care even though it is emphatically not free (it is supported through higher taxes), even though it requires waiting periods for care (even in cases of cancer and other serious illnesses), and even though it deprives people of the latest technology (the city of Pittsburgh has more MRI scanners than the entire nation of Canada).
National Review's Jim Manzi stressed a theme that has been circulating in the works of Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru (both of whom spoke later in the day), David Frum, and others, namely that the Republican Party erred by failing to address concerns of the broad middle class. Republicans tended to talk only of income taxes, neglecting the FICA or payroll tax that all wage earners pay. Douthat, author (with Reihan Salam) of "Grand New Party," expanded on that theme. He outlined three traps facing the American right: 1) Demography. The groups that tend to vote Democrat -- single women, Hispanics and other minorities -- are expanding. The groups that vote for Republicans -- married women, white Christians -- are contracting. 2) Socio-economic. Middle-class wage stagnation over the past couple of decades has made the welfare state look better to more people (also, see single mothers above -- the collapse of the two-parent family is probably a greater threat to future Republican success than any other single factor). 3) Ideological. Douthat argues that conservatives have confused policy with principle and have become wedded to particular solutions (like school vouchers) instead of flexibly seeking conservative approaches to new challenges.
We will need that flexibility as well as a renewed commitment to conservative principles now more than ever as we face a charismatic new president and a Democratic Congress. Republicans have been (myopically) tax-focused, which is a diminishing asset now that fewer and fewer Americans pay income taxes.
Not all of the cultural indicators are negative. Abortion is down, as is the divorce rate (though more people are cohabiting, which is terrible for kids). Crime declined when no one predicted that it would. Conservatives have won tough domestic battles (welfare reform) before -- even with Democratic presidents. The next big battle is health care. After that, we shore up the traditional family. It won't be easy, but this is the land of opportunity -- and despair is a sin.