The Question beloved by pundits is being asked already: "Is conservatism finished?" The Question is the subject of a lengthy essay in Commentary magazine by Wilfred M. McClay, who sprinkles his essay with lots of quotes from angry conservatives suggesting that doom for the Grand Old Party is at hand. Joe Klein, no conservative he, writes in Time magazine that "2006 may be remembered as the year that the Reagan Revolution finally crested and began to recede."
When Ronald Reagan died, the funeral oratory heralded the triumph of the conservatism he brought to the national consciousness, and it was a legacy that seemed to promise permanence. The outpouring of grief for Gerald Ford last week suggests the message, like the flavor of the month, had changed. This decent, short-term president was hailed as the healer-in-chief, a triumph of moderation, a Rorschach test for both liberals and conservatives who could see what they wanted to see and claim him to support their particular political persuasions.
Alas, ideology is never as pure as its adherents wish it to be. It's all in the emphasis, stupid. Reaganism may well dim for the duration of the 110th Congress, but like the announcement of Mark Twain's death, it's premature to say conservatism is finished. Writing grand, sweeping obituaries for the Republicans (1964) and the Democrats (1972, 1984) usually follow blowouts. That's what pundits do. This time some of our pundits are trying to draw grand, sweeping conclusions from tiny fragments of evidence, as if wishing could make it so.
McClay correctly observes in his Commentary piece that the American electorate has moved slowly but steadily toward the right since 1968 (only four years after the Republicans were left for dead after Lyndon Johnson dispatched Barry Goldwater and conservatism to permanent oblivion). A considerable number of the Democratic winners in the new Congress are conservative, and many of the Republicans who lost were beaten not by ideology but because they were careless congressmen who ran bad campaigns. James Webb's defeat of Sen. George Allen is a dramatic example. Many of the margins between Democrats and Republicans were, as in Virginia, tiny.