Is Conservatism Dying?

Posted: Mar 17, 2007 12:00 AM
Is Conservatism Dying?

Time magazine has chosen a weeping (and Photoshopped) Ronald Reagan for its first redesigned cover in 15 years. The theme: "How the Right Went Wrong."

This is not the first time Time has run an altered photo of Reagan on its cover. The August 16, 1993 issue featured Reagan turned upside down, and the blaring headline: "Overturning the Reagan Era." The implicit message in the wake of the 1992 defeat and the passage of the Clinton tax increase: the Age of Reagan was over. Higher marginal tax rates and HillaryCare were here to stay.

The American people had something else to say about that in November 1994.

Once again, conservatism is being left for dead. The November elections were a body blow. The mood at CPAC was said to be glum (funny, I didn't see anyone roaming the exhibit hall with their heads hung low, but I don't seem to have the same magical divining powers as reporters). And conservatives are said to be disaffected with their choices for President.

As conservatives, we face challenges to be sure. But forgive me if I'm not exactly quaking in my boots at the latest in a string of Time magazine covers or New York Times/CBS News polls portending doom for Republicans.

As I wrote on my blog a little over a month ago, we can expect a concerted effort to depress Republican turnout going into 2008. The Democrats will be portrayed as fresh, vigorous, and exciting. Republicans will be framed as disappointed in their candidates, hungering for someone new.

Lo and behold, that is exactly the message we see from this Time cover, and the New York Times/CBS poll earlier in the week purporting to show that most Republicans want new options in the 2008 race.

What's left unsaid is that leading Republican Rudy Giuliani (who campaign I support and am doing some work for) has a greater favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of any the Democratic candidates amongst his own party. To the extent that the Republican candidates are less favored, it's because they are not as well known. (An average of 33% of Republicans don't know enough about any given member of their Big Three; for Democrats that number is 13%.) And the Republicans are not as well known because none of them has received Obamamania-like coverage.

Despite all this, the leading Republican candidates are leading or competitive in the polls. According to the Real Clear Politics average of all public polling, Giuliani leads Hillary Clinton by 4.8 points, while John McCain is up by 1.6 points. We are told that Democrats lead by 20 points or more in the Presidential generic ballot (traditionally a dubious measure). The fact that they can't keep pace in head-to-head matchups says more about public dissatisfaction with their candidates than it does of Republicans.

Sometimes, it seems like Republican despair (the Times uses this word in their piece) and division is mostly an artifact of press rooms and cocktail parties than it is of grassroots voices in the Republican Party. Indeed, this seems to be their strategy. Democrats can't attack Republican candidates who are broadly popular nationally using the standard playbook, so they'll play up Republican division and "despair."

This isn't to say that the primary season won't see disagreements. That's what primaries are for. But more often than not, these divisions will be greater in places like Washington, D.C. than they will in the heartland.

Another interesting fact Time ignores is this: contrary to the conventional wisdom, this primary race is in many ways more conservative than 2000. In 2000, George W. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" largely uninterested in deep cuts in government spending. Today, virtually every Republican carries the banner of spending discipline. With the exception of Chuck Hagel, the primary candidates or prospective candidates haven't really wavered on the prosecution of the war.

So, if conservatism is a "broken" brand, wouldn't candidates be running away from it rather than running on it?

2006 taught us the consequences of running away from the core principles that unify all Republicans, chief among them smaller government. Had we stood unambiguously on these principles, we would have fared much better than we did. The appeal of our ideas is the same or stronger than before; it was our leaders' willingness to carry them through in 2006 that "went wrong," not the conservative movement.

Times like now teach us almost nothing about broad shifts in public opinion. At this point in 1999, George W. Bush was leading by double digits -- at another time when the Republican brand was in the media doghouse after the Clinton impeachment. No one could have predicted the razor-tight 2000 election back then. Until the February 5 GigaTuesday primary, the parties will be focused on duking it out for the nomination. At that point, public opinion will realign based on the parties' nominees, and this will become a contest about the future. With Democrats lacking in bold ideas and a clear direction on the war since taking control of Congress, the Time cover looks like another example wishful thinking and media cocooning for the Democrats.