The drama of the past three weeks has revealed a vein of despair and rage among conservatives. I share their feelings about what is happening to the country, even as I believe their tactics have made things worse (only temporarily, one hopes).
Is America gradually becoming a slow-growth, high-unemployment, sclerotic, bureaucratically top-heavy nation like France, Italy and Great Britain? Yes. Was the nation already stumbling under the weight of unsustainable promises made in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and government pensions before Obama added another entitlement? Yes. Is the U.S. receding as a world power in favor of Russia and China? Yes. Is the federal government encouraging dependency through prolonged unemployment, welfare and food stamp benefits? Yes, yes, yes.
So take a stand over Obamacare, show how strongly you feel, shut it down? Republicans (there is no "Republican establishment," despite the fulminations of the direct-mail and talk radio types) followed that script. Sen. Ted Cruz and others argued that the reason Obamacare still stands is Republicans have been too timid to resist it. They promised that drawing a line on defunding the law would lead to victory as Senate Democrats folded and pressured Obama to do the same. How did that work out? Is Sen. Cruz now a member of the "surrender caucus" because he did not contest the deal to end the disastrous shutdown?
It's dull to recite the details, but Republicans are demonstrably worse off than they would have been by passing a "clean" continuing resolution Sept. 30. That would have maintained sequestration-level spending until Nov. 15 and would have preserved the debt ceiling deadline as leverage for other items -- such as forcing the executive and Congress to live with Obamacare sans subsidies, eliminating the medical device tax or delaying the individual mandate. As it is, Republicans have been forced into surrender on nearly everything and are viewed more unfavorably than ever because of the strategic blunder of the people crying "no surrender!"
According to polls, Americans are already convinced that Republicans are more principled than Democrats. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that the only category in which Republicans were viewed more favorably than Democrats was in having "strong principles." Sixty-three percent agreed that the phrase accurately described Republicans, whereas 57 percent said the same about the Democrats. Republicans have conveyed their philosophy to voters. What they haven't done is convince them that their policies will improve the average voter's life. Only 45 percent of respondents agreed that Republicans "look out for the country's future," whereas 51 percent said as much for the Democrats.
Among younger voters, expressing alarm about socialism is probably counterproductive. Chalk it up to liberal control of K-12 education, the increasing number of college graduates among the electorate or Jon Stewart, but among the 18-29 set, the word "socialism" is viewed positively by 49 percent, versus only 46 percent who have a positive view of capitalism.
Conservatives are fond of citing polls suggesting that self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals 2 to 1. There's probably less there than meets the eye. The Pew poll, for example, found that 62 percent of Americans had a positive view of the word "conservative," versus only 50 percent for the word "liberal." But 67 percent had a positive response to the word "progressive."
My own sense is that most Americans give very little thought to political principles or ideologies. I wish they were all Hayekians, but they're not. When they enter the voting booth, they're asking: Will the streets be safer, taxes be lower, schools be better, jobs be more plentiful? Will the nation be stable or thrown into disorder?
Successful conservative candidates stress the real-world consequences of liberal versus conservative policies. Ideally, if Republicans had been able to field a candidate not inhibited by his own record of endorsing something like Obamacare in Massachusetts (though the comparison was overdone), they might have been better able to convince voters that re-electing Barack Obama meant higher health insurance premiums, more dropped coverage and bureaucratic incompetence.
Going forward, Republicans should be assembling clips of Obama promising that his health reform would not add "one dime" to the deficit, would bring down premiums by an average of $2,500 and would solve the problem of the uninsured.
The disillusioned will have new reasons to listen. They even may be willing to give "progressivism" a failing grade.