Saturday, November 25, 2006

Where do we go from here?

Was the conservative movement already becoming spent as a political force in the United States or did it sink with its embrace of George Bush? A reasonable answer is that it was a combination of both. The contemporary conservative movement has held power in either the White House or congress or the Supreme Court or some combination of the above since 1980. Under George Bush conservatives held control of all three branches of federal government.

Yet, with all that power they were able to do very little towards their own agenda in part because of incredibly inept leadership of Republicans in both the House and the Senate but also because a number of their big ideas were truly unpopular. The fait accompli was allowing George Bush to become the public spokesman for conservatism – a man who, in all fairness, is inarticulate and not very bright.

Where do we go from here? The only thing the mid-term elections have determined is the status quo will not stand. Will the Democrats use this momentum to build a new progressive era? Will the Democrats hold fast to the center? Will the Republicans shake off some of the intellectual dead weight that has held them back and make a come back?

Jacob Weisberg in Slate speculates about the possibilities:
Though George W. Bush is as right-wing as Reagan or Gingrich, he has managed to terminate the conservative era. Bush did this, first of all, by joining with congressional Republicans in treating the federal budget as a Christmas stocking for supporters. Rapidly accumulating deficits and growth in federal spending—from 18.3 percent of GDP in Clinton's final year to 20.3 percent in 2006—undermined the association of conservatism with limited government. On social, moral, and scientific issues, Bush tilted so far to the right that he scared away secular, socially moderate, and libertarian Republicans. Finally, Bush's feckless foreign policy discredited optional military intervention, much as Johnson and Nixon did in Vietnam.

Today, the conservative movement is not just reeling and dejected after a loss at the polls. It has reached a terminal point, much as American liberalism had in 1980. The dream may never die, as Ted Kennedy said at the Democratic convention in 1980, but the patient has. That's not to say that Republican candidates can't win elections, or that some other kind of conservative movement won't emerge as a potent force in the future. But the revolution is over. Its coalition is fractured, its energy is exhausted, and most of its remaining big ideas—school vouchers, the flat tax, and Social Security privatization—are so unpopular that they're not even part of the conversation anymore.

So, if I'm correct that the conservative era is kaput, what comes next? No one knows! But perhaps we can speculate about some of the candidates for successor. Here are four possibilities, moving from left to right:

1. A New Progressivism Many liberals interpret the 2006 election to mean that a new age of activism is at hand. By itself, the Democratic victory in the midterms is hardly a mandate for an expanded government role. Even if the new majority could get major legislation through the Senate, Bush still has a veto pen. But if the trend continues—if Democrats recapture the White House and increase their legislative gains in 2008—they will get an opportunity they haven't had since 1993. What would define a major progressive moment more than anything else would be passing national health-care reform. Beyond that, liberals would have to deal seriously with the negative side effects of globalization and new technology, including wage stagnation, income inequality, and the economic insecurity of the American middle class. …

2. Clintonism Continued Another possibility is that the conservative era yields not to its liberal antithesis, but to a Third Way synthesis. This would mean picking up where Clinton left off in terms of fiscal responsibility, governmental reform, and
global cooperation and engagement. In such an era, the momentum would come not from an energized left but from a vital center. …

3. The Muddled Middle We could be headed for a period in which no clear political direction emerges—imagine the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter period, which connects two eras but doesn't count as one itself. A muddled-middle interregnum would favor social, economic, and security moderates—Rockefeller Republicans, Southern Democrats, and idiosyncratic independents compromising on responsible, consensus policies. It would be a period of single terms, bipartisan commissions, and strange bedfellows. …

4. Bushism Without Bush If any hope exists for a conservative restoration, the best shot is probably the Bush formula of tax-cutting and security toughness—without Bush's excesses, errors and blatant religiosity. Such an era might be characterized by more-responsible Reaganomics, a refocused war on terror, and the continued march of conservative judicial activism. …
You may read his entire piece here.

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