After his defeat in Britain’s 1945 general election, Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine consoled him: “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
As do any blessings to be found in last Tuesday’s election result. The country faces four more years of Barack Obama in the Oval Office, with an increased Democratic majority in the Senate, as a debt crisis bears down upon us at home and our enemies ramp up their efforts abroad. One hopes, for the sake of the country, that on some key issues the president can be persuaded to do the right thing—or, at least, that politics and reality will conspire to pressure the president to do the minimally acceptable thing.
It could happen. Obama won fewer votes than in 2008, and Republicans still control the House and have 30 governors. The public, according to the exit polls, still considers itself more conservative than liberal and, by about 10 points, prefers a government that does less to a government that does more. Obama, though no longer facing reelection, isn’t free of political constraints.
As for reality, it will continue to mug liberals. It’s true that they’ve gotten used to being mugged and resolutely refuse to press charges. It’s true that liberalism has constructed a set of policies, and the modern welfare state a set of incentives and patronage systems, that postpone paying the piper. Still, reality eventually has an effect. The piper’s bills do eventually come due.
Conservatives have a constructive role to play over the next four years in applying political pressure and calling attention to reality in ways that will mitigate the destructive impulses of contemporary liberalism. Conservatives can try to ensure the damage done by liberalism is reparable. But damage there will be. In 1777, following the defeat of General Burgoyne’s army by the Americans at the Battle of Saratoga, John Sinclair lamented to Adam Smith: “If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined.” Smith responded, “Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Over the next four years, we’re going to test that proposition.
But even if America can survive the next four years of Obama, we don’t want to push our luck beyond that. George W. Bush won about 62 million votes in 2004, John McCain about 60 million in 2008, and Mitt Romney about 58 million (as of this writing). If that trajectory of decline continues in 2016, it’s not just the Republican party that’s in trouble, and it’s not just conservatism that’s in trouble. America will be in trouble.
There have been notable moments of conservative triumph and Republican ascendancy since the end of the Cold War. In both 1994 and 2010, conservatives won decisive electoral victories as the country rose up against big government liberalism, and as the GOP channeled popular discontent into huge congressional gains. But in neither case was the off-year oppositional triumph converted to a positive mandate in the next presidential election. The necessities and responsibilities imposed by controlling one or both houses of Congress meant the task of coalition-maintenance took priority over developing a new and clear agenda. And the tactical challenges of dealing with the president of another party took priority over taking the long view in policy or politics. What’s more, the presidential nominating process in 1996 and 2012 produced traditional frontrunners without much interest in shaking up their own party.
So the GOP stayed with business as usual, conservatives had plenty of practical problems to organize around and deal with—and the rethinking of policy and politics was less bold, less comprehensive, and less heterodox than it might have been. Fresh thinking took a back seat. The critiques of big government liberalism in 1994 and 2010 weren’t followed by equally compelling articulations of the major elements of a governing conservatism. The analysis of the failure of what Walter Russell Mead has called the blue state social model wasn’t followed by the development of a compelling red state social model. Some Republican governors did have successes, but neither in 1996 nor in 2012 were those translated into national policies and presidential agendas.
The good news is that political parties are more receptive to change at certain times, and one of those times is after an establishment candidate loses in a year in which victory seemed possible. The Democrats turned away from Michael Dukakis’s aging liberalism to embrace Bill Clinton’s New Democratic agenda (however overhyped) in 1992. They chose Barack Obama and hope and change in 2008, on the rebound from the lackluster and stiff John Kerry. Now it’s Republicans’ turn to leave behind Mitt Romney’s stale and simplistic policy agenda, and his cautious and conventional presentation of it, for new ideas à la Clinton and new excitement à la Obama.
This won’t happen because a few GOP poobahs in Washington decide it should happen, or because a few conservative leaders decide on the future agenda of the movement. A revivified and rejuvenated conservatism won’t come from the top down. It will happen organically and spontaneously. The best thing “leaders” of the party and the movement can do is to stop thwarting policy heterodoxy and political entrepreneurship.
After all, for a party that claims to value entrepreneurship, Republican politicians at the national level these days show very little of it. The Romney campaign was the opposite of entrepreneurial. Congressional leaders discourage entrepreneurial efforts by backbenchers. And for a movement that claims to understand the dangers of Hayek’s “fatal conceit,” conservative leaders tend to embrace centralization, trying to enforce pledges upon and punish deviationism by the rank and file.
If a senator or a representative has a good proposal on immigration or monetary policy or education or tax reform, he or she should introduce it. If a candidate has an idea, he or she should run on it. Don’t worry about getting the go-ahead from leadership or from power brokers, from donors or from interest groups. The elected officials of a great political party shouldn’t play “Mother, May I?”
Will Rogers was famous for saying in the 1920s, “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.” Those disorganized Democrats, full of vim and vigor and noise and conflict, subsequently controlled and reshaped American politics over the next four decades. The Democrats are now the party of oh-so-well-organized patronage schemes and grievance groups. Let Republicans embrace the spirit of Will Rogers. A few years of healthy, spirited, and fruitful disorganization could be an undisguised blessing.