The Conservative Crackup

No One To Blame but Ourselves
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Nov. 5 2008 11:30 AM

The Conservative Crackup

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Tucker, Doug, Jim, Kathleen, and Christine,

Two years ago, while the Republicans were busy losing the House and the Senate, a young conservative writer named Michael Brendan Dougherty inclined his ear to the sound of right-wing recriminations and observed that "at the end of the day, the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It's failing because it's like you."

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In the wake of Barack Obama's victory, this will be the pattern of conservative commentary for months and perhaps years to come. Foreign-policy realists will insist neoconservatism doomed the Bush administration to failure. Anti-immigration activists will claim that the Republican Party would have beaten Obama if only it had nominated somebody who actually opposed illegal immigration, instead of just pretending. Small-government conservatives will claim that if the Bush administration had only held the line on domestic spending, everything would have turned out differently. The dwindling band of Rockefeller Republicans will blame the whole thing on social conservatives for being too strident about abortion and gay marriage and turning off moderates; social conservatives, for their part, will argue that John McCain didn't talk enough about abortion and gay marriage. And so on.

I have my own dog in a number of these fights, but it's important to point out that nearly every faction will be able to score some points and lay some blame: A pair of defeats as resounding as '06 and '08 have a thousand fathers, no matter how much every right-winger would like to assign paternity to someone else. Which means that the best thing, by far, for the American right would be for every sect within the conservative temple to spend some time in self-examination before it turns to flinging blame.

Social conservatives, a group in which I count myself, might profitably meditate on how to disentangle our primary political goal—the protection of the unborn—from secondary issues like, say, abstinence-only education and the debate over evolution and intelligent design, which dovetail too easily with caricatures of religious fundamentalism (as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin both discovered in the media coverage of their campaigns). Meanwhile, those Republicans who wish that the GOP spend more time talking about, say, capital-gains tax rates and less time talking about abortion should recognize that in this election, the McCain ticket did exactly that, sidestepping the social issues and instead emphasizing a business-friendly tax agenda and (late in the game) Joe the Plumber's case against progressive taxation. This strategy did not exactly reap impressive returns.

Or, again, anti-immigration hawks should ponder the fact that in the long run, the GOP cannot win without Hispanic votes, and recognize that the party's increasingly poor showing in the Southwest has a lot to do with the bile that some conservatives direct at illegal immigrants. But advocates of comprehensive immigration reform should recognize that they lack credibility with many voters who are motivated by concerns for law and order rather than by bigotry; that by nominating John McCain, the most pro-immigration figure among the primary contenders, the GOP gained exactly nothing with Hispanic voters; and that the party will need other ways to win Latinos than simply pandering to their ethnic loyalties.

Likewise, in foreign policy, neoconservatives would do well to draw chastening lessons—about the utility of pre-emptive war, America's capacity for nation-building, and so on—from the debacles of the last four years. But neoconservatism did not give us Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and it's not as though there was a groundswell of opposition to the invasion of Iraq among non-neocon right-wingers. And the realist community, in particular, might profitably ponder how so many of its members found themselves supporting the invasion of Iraq and then opposing the only strategy—the surge—that's offered any hope of a decent outcome in that country.

There's a great deal of talk about a conservative crackup at the moment, as there always is after a big defeat. And some cracking-up will no doubt take place: Some factions and demographics will leave the right-wing tent, never to return, and others will (I hope!) join up in their place. But I suspect that the conservative coalition won't change all that much, once the dust has settled: There will still be free-marketeers and religious conservatives, idealists and realists, libertarians and law-and-order types. And as long as we're all going to be living together, each faction would do well to give the beams in their own eyes at least as much attention as they give the motes in the eyes of their neighbors.