In the aftermath of the 2008 election, the writer Sam Tanenhaus published a small book entitled The Death of Conservatism. It was an excellent encapsulation of the conventional wisdom that conservatism had expended itself in the second Bush term. By the time the book was published in mid-2009, its thesis had already been disproven. What brought conservatism back to life so quickly? The answer is that there was a concerted effort to reconstruct the conservative movement that began in the late Bush years and has the potential to make conservatism more influential than ever before.
How Conservatism Died
No matter how many conservatives try to run from Bush now, it is as plain as day that he was the movement choice for president in 2000. At a time when the Republican Party was in a rut, Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” was the white horse that would save the GOP from its limitations.
The immediate results were good. Bush narrowly won an election that Al Gore should have won by 10 points or more. Bush delivered on conservative priorities like tax cuts, a strong national defense, and conservative judges. And lest we forget, Bush was a very popular president for a few years.
There were three breaking points that roiled the conservative movement. The first was the passage of Medicare Part D. The notion that Republicans would create an entitlement program, and one that was aimed at the middle-class, undermined the fiscal credibility of the Republican Party. The underhanded means by which the bill was passed also severely damaged the party’s ethical credibility.
Breaking point number two was the bungling of the Iraq War. The Bush administration’s mismanagement of the war led to massive Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections.
The final breaking point was the Bush administration’s attempt to pass an immigration bill in the summer of 2007. Bush’s stance on immigration — which many conservatives considered too lenient — disillusioned conservative activists and transformed Bush from a merely unpopular president into a political leper. The conservative movement had entered its darkest period in years.
How Conservatism Came Back to Life
The beginning of post-Bush conservatism can be traced to the publishing of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the most influential conservative book of the past half decade. While the book mostly attacked the progressive left, it was also an assault on “compassionate conservatism.” Goldberg argued that conservatives had made a mistake by not fighting harder against big government.
The federal government’s reckless and arbitrary response to the 2008 financial crisis was the impetus for a return to authentic conservatism. The government’s focus on bailing out auto companies and the owners of bad mortgages further stoked the right’s anger. When the newly-installed Obama administration proposed a stimulus package that was more or less a payoff to key campaign supporters, a new grassroots movement against government spending was born.
The Tea Party
The Tea Party movement is the most visible post-Bush political phenomenon. The movement, which is the first sustained right-wing protest movement in decades (with the exception of the pro-life movement), hit its stride last summer during the health care reform protests. The major pushback experienced in the town hall meetings solidified opposition to the Democrats’ health care plan. By the fall, the tea parties were a national phenomenon.
The Republican Reformation
The Democratic polling firm Third Way found in a recent poll that 65 percent of respondents believe that if Republicans return to power, they will pursue different economic policies than President Bush pursued. You can thank the Tea Parties for the stark separation of the GOP from the Bush administration. This could never have occurred absent a very public movement that rebelled against the conventional wisdom of both the Bush and Obama presidencies.
Every day brings forth more signs that the public is finally willing to consider transformative conservative reforms. There are popular, boldly conservative governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey and Jan Brewer in Arizona who are willing to take on the shibboleths of the ruling class. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan has put forth his visionary Road Map, which would tame our debt nightmare. Similar developments at all levels of government suggest that the past achievements of the conservative movement were just a prelude to the achievements it is on the verge of accomplishing.
Chris Palko is a graduate student at George Washington University.