Embrace the Wilderness

Note: I wrote this column on the assumption that Barack Obama will go on to win the U.S. Presidency tonight. That is still my active assumption. If I turn out to be wrong, you can pretty much scrap everything I’ve written, and I will happily stand at attention while everyone here hurls digital eggs right at my face.

There will be time for backbiting and recriminations, but right now there are a couple of things we all need to accept. Today John McCain is going down in defeat, and with him goes the Republican Party’s chances of controlling the national government for at least the next election cycle and possibly much longer. More importantly, the Age of Reagan has officially ended. For the first time since 1976 a genuine liberal has won the White House, and that in itself marks a significant point of departure from the last three decades of American political history. My friends, we have entered the wilderness. How long we spend there depends on how we adjust to the challenges we face.

Let us now take solace in the one comforting lesson of this defeat. This election has taught us that nothing lasts forever. Whatever new political coalition Barack Obama and the Democrats manage to build, it too will crumble and fall, its foundations torn apart by the shifting tectonic plates of American politics. I know this because it has always been so. The Republican Party ruled American politics in the early twentieth century, winning seven of nine presidential elections from 1896 to 1928. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition won five straight presidential elections from 1932 to 1948, and when Eisenhower brought the GOP back to power in 1952 it was only to ratify most of the victories of the New Deal. But the Roosevelt coalition also perished in the face of the Reagan coalition’s onslaught. As powerful as all these political machines once seemed, none of them endured more than a generation, and many last for much shorter periods.

The second thing we must learn from this experience is that politics do not trump history. John McCain and the GOP lost today because they were on the wrong side of several unfavorable historical trends. The worst of these was the economic crisis. Fairly or unfairly, the public has blamed the Republican Party for the worsening economic conditions, and that blew apart any chance McCain had of winning this election. Public fatigue with the Iraq War was another such trend. John McCain can take comfort from the fact that his courageous stand in favor of the Iraq “surge” policy helped move Iraq closer to the point where its troubled government can survive without support from U.S. troops. We may discover that the progress Iraq has made will prove durable enough to survive even the precipitous withdrawal Obama has promised. However, McCain’s stand on the war has also contributed to his electoral defeat. He once said that he would rather lose an election than a war, and it seems that he got the bargain he wanted. If Iraq goes on to become a functional country, McCain’s courage will have helped save tens of thousands of Iraqi and American lives. But make no mistake: that victory has cost the Republican Party control of Washington. We should remember that the next time we win a national election.

Third, we must remember that America remains, even now, an instinctively conservative country. Like many of you, I believe that Barack Obama is a leftist radical at heart, but the fact that he has cloaked his radicalism in centrist rhetoric shows that he understands how at odds those views are with ordinary American public opinion. Ordinary Americans don’t want to tax the coal industry out of existence. Ordinary Americans want to produce more of our own energy. Most importantly, ordinary Americans still don’t want to pay higher taxes. In electing Obama, the American people may have chosen a slightly more activist state, but only because they believe Obama when he says that he can make someone else (i.e., the “rich”) pay for it. The moment they figure out otherwise is the precise moment when they fall out of love with the Illinois wunderkind.

So, what must we do to hasten our return to power? We need to do a lot of things. We need to resolve our own internal division over immigration reform. We need to stop preaching about government waste and then muscling our way to the trough when it’s time for Congress to pass out the slops. We also need to stop the scandals like the one that just ended Ted Stevens’ career. But first, on a fundamental level, republicans need to rediscover who they are as a party. At the national level, the Republican brand has discredited itself with scandals, expanding bureaucracy, and excessive spending. The party’s recent behavior while in power clashes dramatically with its long-held principles of limited government and limited spending. The public might very well vote for a limited-government party, but first they would have to believe that party actually means what it says. Right now, they don’t believe us when we talk about our principles. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

I leave you with this one word of encouragement. The GOP may have lost an election, but the things we believe in as conservatives – small government, personal responsibility, low taxes, the individual’s right to economic self-determination – these ideals have not lost. These principles never die, because they are the values of a political philosophy that cherishes freedom and affirms the best aspirations of the human spirit. No, I’m not giving up on conservatism. It is still worth fighting for, and it is still the best way to preserve and protect the greatest country on the face of the earth.