“Let’s grow up conservatives. If we want to take this party back — and I think we can — let's get to work.”
Sen. Barry Goldwater, 1960 Republican Convention
Nominee Sen. John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has galvanized a moribund Republican Party and electrified the conservative movement. In a presidential election during an ostensibly Democratic year, two years after an infamous “thumpin’” at the mid-term polls, McCain is rapidly gaining momentum and poised to become the frontrunner over the once seemingly inevitable historic candidacy of the first African-American nominee to the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama. Conversely, whether the GOP will lose more seats in the Senate and the House is not contested. Republican congressional campaign chiefs are readily conceding such, asserting the preservation of a caucus capable of sustaining a filibuster will be victory enough. Accordingly, once unenthused Republicans are now flocking to McCain, the perennial maverick of the party. Conservatives readily admit their newfound enthusiasm is due more for his bold gamble on Palin. While the selection has indeed provided yet another surprising turn in a presidential election season replete with drama, declarations of a “resurrection” – party-wise or movement-wise – are premature.
Genuine rise in the polls or not, this history-making ticket faces long odds and American conservatives should be prepared.
Since 1964, the Republican Party has been home to the modern conservative movement. But, as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan demonstrated, patience can be critical.
When Goldwater politely declined the nomination in 1960, he knew the movement was unready. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the JFK assassination robbed him the opportunity to run against a more honorable man. Goldwater himself acknowledged he did not want to run in 1964 and knew at the convention he would lose to LBJ.
Goldwater and John F. Kennedy famously discussed traveling the country together and debating the issues respectfully. Instead, Goldwater had to overcome a bitterly fractious convention and a sitting president prepared to wage a disgracefully negative campaign. Goldwater was trounced and his conservative message was derided as extremist. Nevertheless, the additional four years permitted the conservative movement time to mature as a political force and identify an heir in the form of Ronald Reagan.
It was another twelve years before Reagan could finally marshal a substantive challenge on behalf of conservatism. However, he launched his bid against a sitting president. Reagan’s challenge to Ford in 1976 came up short but Ford also lost. To the misfortune of the country, the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter proved inept and incapable.
Fortunately, Reagan’s 1976 bid provided the basis for the overwhelmingly successful nomination run four years later. By 1980, not only was the Republican Party ready to embrace Reaganite conservatism, but so was the entire nation. Reagan triumphed in a landslide and set the stage for the modern conservative electoral era.
In the twenty-eight years since 1980, Republican conservatism has dominated one or both elected branches of the federal government for all but two (data).
Nonetheless, all political movements ebb and realignments are inevitable.
With the 2008 Republican Party presidential ticket, American conservatives are in uncharted waters. Neither the presidential or vice-presidential candidate has been a longtime leader anchored in the movement. John McCain enthusiastically describes himself as a “foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,” but he has never been one of its generals. Sarah Palin is famous for toppling the entrenched Republican political machine in Alaska. In the space of two years, she has shown herself to be a formidable governor an a attractive profile of conservatism’s future, but she has not yet indicated how she would tackle major national issues. Both are equal in their zeal for reform, but it is unclear as to how conservatism will guide their decision-making.
McCain and Palin are indeed the pair of mavericks they profess to be and represent a generational transition. By picking Palin, McCain has essentially accelerated the turnover in the Republican Party and conservative movement. While conventional wisdom suggested McCain should pick former rival Mitt Romney or another newcomer, Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, neither would have been the adrenaline shot Palin has proven to be. Conservatives were ready for a walk in the wilderness if either Romney or Pawlenty had been picked, but the sudden popularity of Palin reminds conservatives how much vitality the movement and message retains, as well as the indisputable power a leader can marshal when drawn from the ranks of regular Americans, unlike a pretentious Obama or Beltway fixture Sen. Joseph Biden. With Palin, the opportunity for conservatives becomes today not tomorrow.
While McCain’s surge in the polls and Palin’s potential elevation to the vice presidency is grounds for conservative celebration, victory in November should induce caution. A McCain Administration will probably face an expanded (and very hungry) liberal Democratic majority in the Congress; if Obama loses, the Reid-Pelosi-led caucus would be sure to make every effort to make life miserable for the incoming administration. McCain should be prepared to yield a substantial role in leading whatever reform agenda is adopted.
Not that McCain has clarified what his reform agenda will entail. McCain has been a persistent renegade and contrarian – he acknowledges Reagan as an influence but identifies Theodore Roosevelt as his inspiration. While the 26th president is a treasured Republican icon, invoking TR unsettles contemporary conservatives, given the rambunctious president’s penchant for government activism and railings against “malefactors of great wealth.”
In similar fashion, McCain has gleefully antagonized the conservative movement with his various initiatives. After losing a hard-fought race to Bush in 2000, McCain reveled in his maverick reform personal, almost cavalierly disregarding his Republican identification and professed conservative principles. McCain voted against the Bush tax agenda claiming they only benefited the wealthy, sponsored campaign finance legislation at the expense of First Amendment rights, and championed an immigration bill inattentive to border security priorities. Whether McCain chart his own course is uncontested; what that course will be is unknown.
Inheriting an increasingly complicated international environment and a severely challenged economic situation, McCain will have to defy expectations in order to more than a transitional figure. In all likelihood, a McCain Administration would rely heavily on the veto (a welcome change), while occasionally reaching some accommodation with Congressional Democrats on a high-profile, but tangential, priority. The probability of McCain conceiving of and implementing the innovations required to align conservative principles with the challenges of modern governance is low.
Furthermore, while McCain has ably employed Palin on the campaign trail, what role Palin will have in the administration has not been defined. Palin is unlikely to have the latitude exercised by current Vice President Richard Cheney. If Palin lives up to expectations, a good possibility, her office could be the locus of policy experimentation and basis for nurturing new leadership. While Vice President Dan Quayle was derided as a lightweight, his office was a conservative stronghold during the more pragmatic Bush 41 administration. William Kristol served as Vice President Quayle’s chief of staff before emerging as a leading conservative thinker.
Should the Republican ticket lose, the seventy-two year old McCain would probably depart the stage lauded as a senior statesman. However, unlike Bob Dole’s defeat in 1996 when conservatives still retained the initiative via the Republican congressional majorities, conservatives would be completely shut out of the government after having thoroughly dominated the scene for a decade. Furthermore, conservative principles, while still ardently defended by proponents, would be considered discredited – fairly and unfairly – in the wake of the Bush presidency.
The future content and course of American conservatism is under debate right now. The saving grace would come in the opportunity to assume the reformist mantle the McCain-Palin ticket represented and capitalize on the enthusiasm both leaders (especially Palin) generated.
Sen. Obama’s (brief) record has been unreservedly liberal and his platform promises to reinstitute redistributionist and regulatory regimes abandoned fifty years ago. However, the last time conservatism was able to surge back came in the wake of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies, a period of time where conservatives too were in the opposition. As noted previously, it was sixteen years before Reagan was able to “succeed” Goldwater in capturing the nomination. The conservatives’ expected walk in the wilderness will be facilitated by maneuvering against an Obama Administration enabled by a Democratic Congress, but similarly they must expect continuing skepticism on the part of voters so soon after the debacles of the Bush presidency.
Conservatives must also resolve internal debates as to how future challenges will be addressed. The ambitions of national greatness conservatism foundered in the deserts of the Middle East. Sam’s Club conservatism presents intriguing possibilities and many state level leaders have demonstrated successes, but the approach does constitute an accommodation of liberalism’s deference to government. As shown by the Bush Administration’s disastrous Medicare reform package, the corresponding obligations have only exacerbated the already gargantuan entitlement mess, while barely injecting needed free market pressure into the health care system as promised. As called for in preceding essays, future conservatism should emphasize reconfiguring national security, rationalizing the tax code, reducing government, and reforming entitlements.
The key to sustained dynamism remains in precariously balance the interests of both traditionalists and libertarians, the twin pillars of modern American conservatism (and key to Republican political success).
A comeback is not in the making, but at least the process of creative destruction has begun.
Potential Congressional Caucus Reform
While the breadth and depth of American conservative leadership has diminished, a few stalwarts uphold conservative principles on the national, congressional, and state level. Sustaining and supporting each of these individuals in the lean years to come will be a challenge, but it is not the dearth of authority conservatism fears in its political leadership. Rather, the acquisition of power has actually been the greater detriment.
While legislated term limits reduce choice, conservatives readily recognize longevity has its disadvantages especially when a sustained stay in power is certain to corrupt. As McCain points out, not only did Republican conservatives fail to change Washington, but Washington actually changed them. Once power is attained, the clock starts ticking; integrity, once introduced to privilege, has an expiration date.
Going forward, Republican conservatives should again take another cue from Barry Goldwater. Even though Goldwater had to waited sixteen years before his party won the Senate, he left within four years himself. Accordingly, congressional Republican conservative, members and candidates, should agree to the following reform:
- If the Republican Party is in the minority, a member can stand for
- If the Republican Party achieves a majority, then a member will subject
him or herself to the following term limits:
- In the House, beginning that year, veteran and incoming
representatives can serve for six consecutive years.
- In the Senate,
- veteran members, if not re-elected in the year the majority is obtained, can stand for one more re-election. Otherwise, if a veteran member is re-elected in the year the majority is obtained, then he or she cannot stand for re-election.
- incoming members can stand for a single re-election.