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Good News for Conservatives

Conservatives' prospects in 2008 are better than you might think.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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What a moment! Having learned nothing from the left's Bush Derangement Syndrome, the conservative movement's big talkers spent the days before Super Tuesday indulging in a fiery display of McCain Derangement Syndrome. For some of these folks, this is what medical insurance providers might call a preexisting condition, always on the verge of flaring up. Republican voters were more sensible. They went for McCain, selecting the most electable and impressive candidate. The conservative movement is licking its wounds, but will recover.

It was an unattractive few weeks. In the rush to damn McCain, the movement paid obeisance to some dubious advisers. It listened to the pronouncements of Tom DeLay, who had previously done so much to convince his countrymen that conservatives could not be trusted to govern. It hearkened to the political counsel of Rick Santorum, who lost his Senate seat in the swing state of Pennsylvania two years ago by 17 percentage points. It took seriously the aspersions of James Dobson, whose "conscience" does not permit him to vote for John McCain.

Well, movements are .  .  . movements after all. They tend to march to the beat of the loudest drums. Still, it does seem that many self-proclaimed movement leaders have managed the impressive feat of sounding at once hysterical and tedious. But odds are most will soon reconcile themselves to McCain. The fact is, ordinary American conservatives already are reconciled. Some are enthusiastic. And movement leaders are good at racing to the head of a parade when they see their "followers" marching by.

Here's the good news--and it's really quite good. A reasonably conservative presidential candidate, leading a reasonably conservative party, has a good chance to win the general election. With a difficult task ahead of it--holding on to the White House for a third term, and in this case for the sixth out of the last eight--the GOP has lucked into having as its nominee John McCain, one of the most popular politicians in America.

What's more, conservatism as a set of ideas is in pretty good shape. "Neoconservative" thinking on America's place in the world has beaten back attempts to revive the crabbed "realism" of some congressional Republicans in the 1990s as a plausible approach for dealing with the world of the 21st century. And there is a resurgence of creative thinking on domestic policy, reminiscent of the neoconservatism of an earlier generation. Younger conservatives are displaying a welcome heterodoxy in their approach to health care, taxes, and family policy issues. (To toot our own horn, and to mention just a few examples from these pages: See Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, "The Party of Sam's Club," November 14, 2005; Yuval Levin, "Putting Parents First," December 4, 2006; James C. Capretta's "Gunnar Myrdal Was Right: Social Security's Fertility Problem," May 7, 2007; and "Conservative Populism: Rightly Understood," by Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin, January 28, 2008.)

Conservatives, in short, are adjusting to the times. This is a good thing, and is one of the neglected lessons of Ronald Reagan's success: Reagan's 1980 platform differed from Barry Goldwater's in 1964. Consider further that 2008 is as far removed from 1980, as 1960 was from 1932. Movement liberalism in 1960 yearned for a purer, more orthodox FDR-style liberal than John F. Kennedy. Eleanor Roosevelt was appalled that the old guard had to give way. But it was surely better for liberals and liberalism that JFK called for a New Frontier rather than an extension of the New Deal.

Defenders of conservative orthodoxy often speak of their movement as, so to speak, seated on a three-legged stool of social, economic, and foreign policy conservatism. Of course most conservatives don't think of themselves as belonging to just one of these categories. The metaphor implicitly accepts a kind of balkanization of conservatism that does an injustice to the richness of the conservative idea. Furthermore the "stool" image is static--and therefore a poor guide to thinking about real, ongoing democratic politics.