Why are conservatives so depressed?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 17 2012 7:14 PM

What? Me Worry?

It’s too early to say who will win in November. But Republicans increasingly seem to think it won’t be them.

Why are Tea Partiers so sad?
Why are Tea Partiers so sad?

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The headline spoiled the column. James Pethokoukis, the chart-loving opinion-maker at the American Enterprise Institute, started with a warning: “How Republicans can win even if the economy keeps improving.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

How they can win? Had Pethokoukis lost the rights to his old pieces like “Obama Faces Worst-Case 2012 Scenario” and “If Obama Loses, It Will Be Because of This One Chart?” All of a sudden he was drawing up Republican battle plans based on contingencies, concluding that the party “just might” win if everything remains stagnant.

We’re living through the phony war of the Republican primary. Barack Obama’s buoyant poll numbers aren’t surprising anyone. The bigger worry is that Obama will get to preside over a solid economy. Republicans will re-enact the Bob Dole juggernaut of 1996. That’s not how this was supposed to work.

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Is the New Republican Pessimism widespread? That’s the tricky part: There are different flavors of pessimism. In this period, a lull that happens to feature good economic news and good Obama poll numbers, there are four identifiable sorts of pessimism. All of them were present at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the kickoff of the movement’s year. Not since 2008 had the event been so moody.

You can make the case that this is healthy, even desirable. “Obama has always been likely to win a second term, as most incumbents running for re-election do,” says Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review who has been shouting about this for a year. “Conservatives were too optimistic about defeating him for much of 2011 and are now, I think, a bit too pessimistic.”

But the pessimism is there, and growing. To simplify matters, I will break it down into four strata, using the defense readiness condition that the Joint Chiefs of Staff use when they’re girding for war.

DEFCON 4: Everybody else is a pessimist. The cocktail chatter of the right this month has been the surprising resilience of Barack Obama, mixed with the unsurprising insistence of Republican voters to drag the race out to Berlin Alexandrplatz proportions. On InTrade—which doesn’t mean much, although the Romney campaign recently cited it as proof that it will beat Santorum—Obama’s chance of victory has floated up to 60 percent. “The Twitterization of politics,” says Commentary editor-in-chief John Podhoretz, “really is leading people to overreact.”

Podhoretz calls the New Pessimism a “classic fallacy,” easily explained. “A few good bits of news in February combined with GOP campaign nonsense will only be indicative of the results in November if those few good bits are followed by almost uninterrupted good economic news and if GOP campaign nonsense is never-ending. Neither is likely to be the case, and the crowing in certain liberal quarters is beyond foolish.”

Ed Morrissey, the chief blogger of HotAir.com—he’s endorsed Rick Santorum—gives the new pessimism little credence: It’s bitter pregame whining. “I'm hearing it from the people who were Rick Perry backers, Newt backers, Romney backers. I’m hearing pessimism of the type you get when your guy is not winning.”

DEFCON 3: The economy is improving, but we can overcome that. In his CPAC speech, the official kickoff of the conference, Sen. Jim DeMint acknowledged that the economy was getting better. The president—that fink!—was trying to grab “every piece of credit.” One week later, on the Michigan trail, Rick Santorum admitted that “there are good things happening all across the upper Midwest. That day, a Public Policy Polling survey showed President Obama leading any Republican in Michigan.

The fear, as several conservative activists put it to me at CPAC, was that Republicans had been too successful—they’d started to turn the country around, and the president would get the credit. Republicans elected new, austerity-centric governors in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida. A turnaround would be good for them, but they aren’t on the ballot in 2012.

“If the economy picks up it's harder, no doubt,” says Jennifer Rubin, author of the Right Turn blog at the Washington Post. “But I do think the funk is overdone. Perhaps this alleviates [Republican voters] from considering electability. If you're going to lose, you can vote with your heart and not your head.”

DEFCON 2: We are blowing it. Some of the New Pessimists have been worrying about this election for months. They tried to draft Chris Christie. They tried to draft Paul Ryan. Bill Kristol’s column space in the Weekly Standard became the world’s sloppiest campaign launchpad—none of these guys ever took off.

“I think the base of the party, the conservative ‘Reagan’ base, is disappointed and dismayed because they don't feel any of the candidates have all of the ‘elements’ needed to win,” says Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of the Newsmax network. “Mitt has money and organization but no charisma with the base. Newt has charisma, but little organization and possible money. Santorum connects to one part of the base and it will be a challenge for him all around.”

Some would-be party reformers agree with this, and it kills them. “I'd say the chances that President Obama will be reelected are better than 50-50,” says Reihan Salam, a National Review writer and policy analyst. “And I think that the nature of the primary race has made his reelection prospects much brighter. Santorum, in particular, is a candidate who, leaving aside the question of his substantive virtues or drawbacks, is a lightning rod for Postmoderns, media professionals, and many other influential people who will sway the way others vote.”

In the base’s version of theory—nicely calibrated to a possible November disaster—the election was never really winnable, and the movement will be able to blame the establishment if Obama wins again. It’s not just the base that feels this way. “I just got back from speaking to Federalist Society members at the University of Houston law school,” says Ponnuru. “When one of them asked, I said Obama has the edge. He didn't tell me I was crazy. Nobody has, lately—at least on that subject.”

DEFCON 1: We are doomed. The darkest of the New Pessimists say that the election was decided four years ago. Obama’s policies were designed to kick in and goose the economy around this time; the payroll tax cut—just extended this week—is the last of the goosing.

 “The lack of a clear, compelling, and truly alternative vision of governance from Romney will doom him against Obama,” says Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian hub Reason.com. (Disclosure time: I am a contributing editor of Reason magazine.) “Note: I'm not talking about charisma—I'm talking about vision: what would the country be like under a President Romney? We all know that it would basically be the same as the one we're in now, alas. Of the Republican candidates still around, only Ron Paul offers a clear alternative to both the Democratic and Republican status quo, but he has failed to catch fire with voters the way I wished he would.”

Paul’s voters, generally speaking, are the most apocalyptic members of the GOP New Pessimism club. Their candidate is the new Thomas Jefferson, the would-be savior of the Republic. We can elect him—or we can kiss America goodbye. If the Republicans go with some other nominee, plenty of Paul supporters will walk away from the party. There’s one more data point for the New Pessimism.