In one of the early columns in this series, I pointed out that, if we look back over the last thirty or forty years, we see that the Left won the culture war while we conservatives won politically. It is true that we won politically, in the sense of winning elections. Republicans now control the White House and both Houses of Congress, something we could not have even dreamed about forty years ago. But to assess where conservatives are in politics today, we have to look beyond just winning elections.
The question is do we have power? Not power for ourselves but power for the common good. I would venture that while we have influence, we often lack power. And as my old colleague Howard Phillips used to teach there is a profound difference.
I have been here while the Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). I have also seen Republicans in the White House but Democrats controlling the Congress. (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43. In his case the Democrats controlled the Senate for a year and a half.) and I have seen a Democrat in the White House with Republicans controlling the Congress (Clinton) and now for the past several years Republicans controlled not only the White House but the Congress.
We should be in political heaven with this development. The first time this has happened in more than 50 years. If we really had power, then, our ideas and programs would be front and center. We should be well into a period of having adopted them and now we should be concerned with their implementation. The fact is most of our programs and ideas are dead on arrival. In some cases the President has proposed good ideas only to see them sink in the Congressional cesspool. In other cases, the President won’t buy into our ideas. We plead them in the Congress but we often don’t get very far.
Yes, we have influence. In some cases the White House worries about offending their base. The same with Congress. So often we are able to stop bad ideas.
Why is this the case? The fact is we have no horse. To the extent our ideas advanced in the past it was because we first had Senator Barry Goldwater. Granted, Goldwater later turned out to be something other than a conservative on a lot of issues. But his initial “Conscience of a Conservative” advanced our ideas and made our views legitimate. The Goldwater campaign involved then actor Ronald Reagan. His speech on national television again advanced our views. Then he ran and was elected Governor of California. After he served two terms, during which he continued to advance our views, he ran for President. Although he failed to defeat President Gerald Ford in 1976, that run set him up to be the heir apparent in 1980.
Reagan’s election, and with him a Republican Senate and enough Republicans to form a conservative coalition in the House, advanced our ideas. Tax cuts worked. So did the President’s objective of bringing down the Soviet Union. Most conservatives never believed that was possible. While the Reagan Administration did not see all of our ideas enacted into law, still he made issues such as vouchers popular and these issues have lived far beyond his Administration. He also made legitimate our view that federal courts have to be reigned in.
While George Herbert Walker Bush continued some ideas advanced by President Reagan, his advocacy of the largest tax increase in US history, after he had pledged “Read my lips. No new taxes.” ruined his Presidency. Now Bush ’41 has been more open to some of our ideas, but his unwillingness to veto spending bills, the immigration issue which he has not tackled and for some the war in Iraq has meant that he is not the standard bearer of the conservative movement.
We have a number of able Senators, at least a couple of whom could become the standard bearer of the conservative movement. Right now, however they have not stood out among their colleagues. For the most part they have not exercised leadership. We do have a couple of promising Governors. Again, while they have done well in their states, they have not exercised national leadership.
I used to believe that the movement could advance on the basis of ideas alone. We were the first to come up with cultural conservatism. We pushed the idea that political correctness was ruining the nation. Yes, these ideas did catch on in the conservative movement. But we failed to go beyond the movement because we have no standard bearer who openly advances our ideas.
Our movement in some ways is much stronger now than it was even in 1980. At least the social issues part of our movement is much larger than it was when Ronald Reagan became President. The economic part of our movement, however, is not as strong. And the defense/foreign policy part of our movement all but disappeared after the end of the Cold War. It is being reinvigorated now as conservatives realize the threat from the radical Muslims. While ideas are powerful and sometimes they generate action, there is no chance of actually advancing our agenda absent a national figure who will get a following and who can eventually be nominated for President and elected to that office.
For the first time in 2008 we do not have a logical heir to our movement. There are plenty of candidates who plan to run but so far none has caught fire. We run the danger of splitting our support between candidates and thus permitting a liberal to win. If we expect to have power to advance our ideas then we need to get behind a single candidate provided that candidate promises in blood that our people will be appointed by him. Otherwise we will just continue to have influence, but most likely not enough influence to actually see our ideas become law. Can we find a suitable standard bearer for 2008? It will prove difficult but if we don’t this movement may find itself completely on the outside looking in.