It’s Not 1980 Anymore
Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
—William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
For every American conservative, not once but whenever he wants it, it’s always the evening of November 4, 1980, the instant when we knew Ronald Reagan, the man who gave the speech in the lost cause of 1964, leader of the movement since 1966, derided by liberal elites and despised by the Republican establishment, the moment when we knew—he’d won, we’d won, the impossible dream was possible, the desperate gamble of modern conservatism might pay off, conservatism had a chance, America had a chance. And then, a decade later—the Cold War won, the economy revived, America led out of the abyss, we’d come so far with so much at stake—conservatism vindicated, America restored, a desperate and unbelievable victory for the cast made so many years ago against such odds.
But that was then, and this is now. Now is 2012, and it seems clear that 2012 isn’t going to be another 1980. The reality seems to be that we’re not going to have a chance to replay that election, with (at least in the hazy glow of retrospect) a compelling conservative leader of long standing but ever youthful, a man who stood tall and spoke for us and for America, riding gracefully to victory over the GOP establishment in the primaries and over decadent liberalism in the general election. Assuming the presidential field stays as it is, 2012 won’t be a repeat of 1980.
Which is not to say that 2012 can’t be a good, even a very good, election for conservatives and for the country. There are other models for victory. In 1992 an incumbent president was soundly defeated by an impressive though flawed candidate who emerged from a weak field, after leading lights in his party refused to run (Cuomo, Bradley, Gore, Gephardt). Bill Clinton doesn’t provide a model of successful governance for the next Republican president—the next president is going to have to lead, not accommodate—but he does suggest another, less elegant model than 1980 for the defeat of an incompetent incumbent.
And then there’s 1932, when a not particularly distinguished four-year governor who’d zigged and zagged back and forth to be acceptable to large parts of the Democratic party, and whose political career was at first based partly on his last name, defeated another incumbent. Franklin Roosevelt did turn out to be a consequential president—because of the nature of the challenges he faced, because the country was ready for fundamental change, because there was a movement behind him (or ahead of him) that was full of ideas and energy, because there were strong representatives of that movement in Congress and in statehouses, and because he rose to the occasion.
These other models for conservative success in 2012 need to be studied for their lessons and adapted to our times. Reversing Obama’s weakness abroad, repealing Obamacare, restoring solvency and prosperity and limiting government at home, these are tasks too important not to be achieved because of our nostalgic disappointment that we will not, in 2012, replay a moment that is not to be again—and that perhaps never truly was.
Still, for every conservative of a certain age, there is the instant when it’s Election Day 1980, and the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out. . . .