Friday, August 04, 2006

No Time for Eulogies

Santayana famously said that those who don't know history repeat its mistakes, and that is certainly true of pundits who narrowly focus on events of the day. Thus, E.J. Dionne begins today's column, ridiculously, by asking, "Is conservatism finished?"

Dionne somehow thinks that because the Republican Party has fallen on hard times and faces a potential electoral setback this fall, because social and libertarian conservatives aren't playing nice and can't just get along, and because some conservatives have become critical of the Iraq War, that, therefore, conservatism is ready for a eulogy that he is more than happy to deliver.

Someone else has said that history doesn't repeat itself, historians do. That also has application to political punditry.

Large ideas, be they conservative or liberal, do not die within an election cycle. The last time pundits were gleefully declaring conservatism dead was 1992: the Republican President's popularity had sunk like a rock, that President was being accused of mismanaging the end game of a war, conservatives complained that their leaders had betrayed their principles by raising taxes, many Republicans griped that social conservatives (Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle) had ruined the party by looking "mean spirited" by declaring a "culture war." They declared it in 1992: conservatism is dead.

In 1994, the era of big government was allegedly over. That turned out to be premature, as well.

One makes a mistake by too closely connecting conservatism with the fate of Republicans. For much of the 20th century, conservatives were a barely tolerated faction of the Republican Party, and for nearly two decades prior to 1980, many Republicans regarded Ronald Reagan as a charismatic troublemaker who would ruin the Party. The first President Bush even after getting elected on Reagan's coattails, almost immediately distanced himself from Reagan's conservatism by declaring his administration to be "kinder, gentler" than his predecessor. That some of those now running the Republican Party have been shown to be more interested in power than in conservative principles of government in no way discredits those who remain committed to the latter.

In fact, even if Democrats win back both houses in Congress -- which at this point remains unlikely -- the narrowness of their margins with the advantages of a highly unpopular President and serious scandals by Republicans in Congress will be the real story of the year. That they may fail to pick up big gains in a year in which all of the chips have fallen their way should deeply concern those on the left.

As far as disaffected conservatives, they should remember that conservatism is partly a victim of its own electoral success. Small groups easily maintain the purity of their ideas. However, they also are small. Expansion of a movement necessarily increases the opportunity for fuzzy thinking, and some of those now leading the Republican Party, under the banner of conservatism, are more than a little fuzzy in their thought. Conservatism will reinvigorate itself and survive. Some of its leaders may not.

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