What a difference a year makes. For American conservatism, it was a difference between life and death.
With the inauguration of Barack Obama, American politics were supposed to have changed for at least a generation, perhaps longer. When Bill Kristol wrote in the New York Times a year ago this week that “Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era,” few could persuasively disagree.
Others, mostly liberals, took their diagnoses further. Not content with inscribing an obituary for Republican political dominance, Sam Tanenhaus penned an essay and then a book about “the death of conservatism” itself. Even a year before the election, not long after the Democratic midterm victory, an early 2007 Daily Kos headline boasted that “Conservatism is Dead, and It’s Not Coming Back.” From left-leaning columnists to television pundits, the list of those ready (and eager) to pronounce the conservative movement’s demise seemed endless.
But then, on Jan. 19, 2010, the state of Massachusetts opted to replace Ted Kennedy with a conservative Republican named Scott Brown in a special election for the liberal lion’s old Senate seat. This victory, utterly seismic no matter which way it’s spun, literally came out of the bluest of the blue.
The obituaries have been shattered. Conservatism, albeit with scars still apparent, is quite obviously alive and preparing itself to govern again soon.
Even before this week’s special election or the twin GOP gubernatorial victories last November, the right could be seen slowly climbing back to its feet. By mid-September, after a summer-long exertion of anti-Obamacare sentiment across the nation, a New York Times headline conceded: “G.O.P. Checks for a Pulse, and Finds One.”
But did the American right really die and resurrect itself after only three years? What actually happened?
Sometime in December 2008, I remember attending a panel discussion hosted by Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum about the consequences of the recent election. On the prospect of a new progressive era upon us, Professor Michael Kazin, who supported Obama, was actually quite cautious. He argued that unlike its counterpart, liberalism tends to showcase itself more in sporadic moments and less in extended periods of governance.
Examples of this phenomenon could be found in the labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s, and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s/70s. Each came to a head in either a major election (Roosevelt’s second term, 1936) or a major bill (Civil Rights Act, 1964) or a major Supreme Court decision (Roe v. Wade, 1973).
But as Kristol (who also sat on that panel) rightly noted, the true significance of major political victories historically depends on how the victors govern. Franklin Roosevelt’s powerfully effective administration set the tone of not only the ’30s, but also the ’40s and the ’50s—hardly just a moment. Conversely, when Clinton’s agenda floundered early on and allowed for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, he ensured that the “Age of Reagan” would continue even without a Republican in the White House.
We are now discovering that, as a result of Barack Obama’s first year in office, the 2008 election actually more closely resembled that of 1992 than 1932. Realigning elections, after all, only occur if they are followed by what Kristol called “realigning administrations.” Whether or not a president can achieve this status has always depended just as much on whether or not the party in opposition can foster ideas viable enough to counter those in power.
Thus, when Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, spoke to a large gathering of conservatives last November and declared that “we have it in our power to turn this new liberal era into a brief, lamentable moment,” he was referring to history. Liberalism’s future—as an era or as a moment—remains in the right’s hands as much as the left’s.
Precisely how large a role each side played in Martha Coakley’s defeat will be debated for weeks to come. Did the right really hit a grand slam or did the left just suffer a ninth-inning choke? Or was it a bit of both? In any case, American democracy has delivered a stiff shot to the jaw of Obama’s entire party and has reaffirmed that, as Charles Krauthammer wrote last Friday, “slick campaigns and dazzling speeches can work for a while, but the magic always wears off.”
Thus, just a year into what was supposed to be the “Age of Obama,” it can be said with certain confidence that Obama’s assumption of the presidency did not represent the advent of a brand new political era after all but rather just another flashy moment for liberalism. It was a vastly historic and deeply emotional moment, to be sure, but a mere moment nevertheless. Scott Brown’s victory would not have been possible if this weren’t so.
So is the Democratic Party now on its death bed? Certainly not. Is a new conservative era now under way? No, not yet. But Tuesday’s election cannot be minimized. When asked to support a would-be “ally” for Obama and, by extension, vote for his exclusively Democrat-backed health care overhaul, Massachusetts, of all electorates, politely declined. Indeed, they ran the other way.
As they celebrate, surely conservatives now have more than the beat of their pulse to dance to.