Bill Kristol, writing in the Washington Post, gushes about what a great time it is to be a conservative. I agree with him wholeheartedly. For conservatives, this is high cotton.
That may sound strange at first. The Democrats hold the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress. A moderate to liberal agenda is being implemented in Washington. Karl Rove’s vision of a permanent Republican majority has been consigned to the ashbin of history, where it sits alongside Nikita Khrushchev’s ill-fated promise that “We will bury you.”
So why is this such a fab time to be a conservative? Because by its nature, modern American conservatism is not well-suited to govern. That is not where it is happiest; that is not the environment in which it thrives.
Governing forces you to compromise; conservatives abhor compromise; it offends their sense of political purity. When you govern, your rhetoric and idealism are constantly tested against reality, and in the end, reality always wins. Conservatives hate that too.
But once you’re cast out into the political wilderness, you’re free to reject compromise at every turn. Your rhetoric, your hunger for ideological perfection, never have to be adjusted to account for reality. Being in opposition is just a lot more fun, which is one reason the ratings for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are so high.
In that sense, the personification of modern American conservatism might be Sarah Palin. The pressures of actually trying to govern Alaska, a state with fewer people than DeKalb County, proved too much for her. She is far happier out of power, insulated from the harsh realities of trying to make government work and free to believe what she wants to believe.
In his Post column, Kristol cites the results of a new Gallup poll in which 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared to just 20 percent who describe themselves as liberals. To Kristol, that is a sign to be celebrated, and his glee is understandable. But it raises a glaring question, perhaps the most fundamental question of modern American politics:
If conservatives outnumber liberals by 2-1 in this country, and I suspect they do, how is it possible that Democrats hold every lever of national power?
Again, it goes back to the issue of compromise. Because they believe so intensely that they are right and everybody else is dead wrong, conservatives have a hard time building coalitions outside their core. That 40 percent isn’t a foundation on which to build a broader party, it is a self-limiting ceiling. Conservatives simply do not want their lovely movement tainted by any but true believers.
Here’s another number that gets at that paradox. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, only 19 percent of Americans said they trust congressional Republicans to do the right thing for the country, a decline of 10 points since January. (The number for congressional Democrats was 34 percent.) How is that possible in a nation in which 40 percent of the public sees themselves as conservative? The answer is that conservatism appeals to many Americans in theory, but they like it a lot less when they see it actually being applied.
Admittedly, a lot of that disenchantment with Republicans is a hangover from the Bush era. In fact, many Republicans now try to claim that George W. Bush wasn’t really a conservative after all. It’s a familiar refrain: They said the same thing about Bush’s father, about John McCain and about Bob Dole, the nominee in ‘96. To hear many Republicans tell it, their party hasn’t nominated an actual conservative for president since Ronald Reagan 25 years ago. Apparently, no real-life leader can live up to the model of perfection that the conservatives demand.
(The truth is, Reagan couldn’t either. He signed three major tax increases, turned tail and ran when our Marines were ambushed in Lebanon, granted amnesty to illegal aliens, ran up huge deficits, secretly traded arms for hostages with Islamic terrorists in Iran and tried to abolish all nuclear weapons, including our own. If somebody were to run with Reagan’s record today, the Republicans would purge him as a liberal.)
That same dynamic is playing out today in a much-watched special congressional election in upstate New York. With Dede Scozzafava, a moderate Northeast Republican, the GOP was probably poised to retain that longtime Republican seat. But the idea of a moderate Northeast Republican joining the GOP House caucus greatly offended the sensibilities of conservative purists nationwide. They have intervened in that race on behalf of a third candidate, Doug Hoffman, running under the Conservative Party logo, and as a result may end up losing that seat to a Democrat.
Interestingly, when the local newspaper interviewed Hoffman, they found him almost totally ignorant of the issues important to that region. According to the Watertown Daily Times, he “showed no grasp of the bread-and-butter issues pertinent to district residents … In a nearly hour-long session, Mr. Hoffman was unable to articulate clear positions on a number of matters specific to Northern New Yorkers.”
To a lot of conservatives outside that upstate district, that doesn’t matter. What matters most is that Hoffman pledges loyalty to conservative ideology.
Kristol shares that attitude. He and his colleagues like to think of themselves as right-wing versions of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestras, romantic revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the evil dictator Fulgencio Obama. That is the role they are born to play, over and over again. And naturally, they don’t think much of those bourgeois, pointy-headed Washington Republicans* tainted by accomodation.
The center of gravity, I suspect, will instead lie with individuals such as Palin and Huckabee and Gingrich, media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and activists at town halls and tea parties. Some will lament this — but over the past year, as those voices have dominated, conservatism has done pretty well in the body politic, and Republicans have narrowed the gap with Democrats in test ballots.
Limbaugh, Beck and Palin are not party figures destined to govern or expand the party; they are party leaders who will enforce the conservative line and reinvigorate both its revolutionary spirit and its minority status. And if that’s OK with Kristol, who am I to argue?
*(Just as an aside, I think Kristol is an absolute genius at self-parody. In his column, he casts his lot with the populists and non-Beltway Republicans and against those who “yearn for a more moderate, temperate and sophisticated Republican Party.” He dismisses those figures as “bien-pensant conservative elites,” a term that I’m sure he picked up in his conversations with the good folks at Mabel’s Diner on Main Street.)