The Right Needs to Get Centered

By Rich Lowry
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tuesday's Republican debacle was, as the social scientists say, "over-determined." It had many causes.

Was it brought on by congressional corruption, Bush administration incompetence, intellectual exhaustion or John McCain's failings as a candidate? All of the above -- and then some.

In 2006, voters set out to punish Republicans for loose practices in Washington -- most spectacularly the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- and the mishandling of the Iraq war. This year, they decided that Republicans deserved another whipping, even before the September financial meltdown added yet another black mark against the Bush administration.

Where does this leave conservatives? They've had bad election nights before. Barry Goldwater won all of six states in 1964. But that election marked a new conservative ascendancy within the GOP that was a harbinger of victories to come. Democrats swept congressional races in 1974 and elected Jimmy Carter in 1976. But that was a reaction to the malfeasance of Richard Nixon, a president whom conservatives never truly considered one of their own. Bill Clinton won in 1992, but with only 43 percent of the vote and over an incumbent Republican, George H.W. Bush, whom conservatives had already repudiated.

This year is different. The president the public recoiled from has had the strong support of conservatives, who have celebrated him in books with titles such as "The Right Man" and "Rebel-in-Chief." The shepherd of the Republican congressional majority that was swept out of power in 2006 was conservative stalwart Tom DeLay. After this latest defeat, conservatism has no clear national political leaders and is confused about where it has gone wrong, or even whether it has gone wrong at all.

One temptation will be to say that if only Republicans had stayed truer to the faith, especially on fiscal discipline, none of this would have happened. Earmarks unquestionably contributed to the culture of corruption that has so bedeviled Republicans in recent years. But fighting them became an overriding obsession of some conservatives and of McCain, as if opposing earmarks alone -- 1 percent of federal spending -- would constitute a winning economic agenda.

As for Bush, he didn't run as a strict fiscal conservative when he was elected in 2000, and he wasn't any more profligate in his second term, when he was roundly rejected by the public, than in his first term, when he was on his way to reelection. The party obviously can't allow Democrats to wear the mantle of fiscal responsibility, but limiting government alone won't be enough for Republicans to connect on domestic issues.

Another temptation will be to blame John McCain: He was a maverick and not a conservative, and if only one of the faithful had run, Republicans would have been spared this defeat.

This is a fantasy. It's hard to imagine any Republican running ahead of McCain this year. Besides, even if no one ever mistook him for an emblem of modern conservatism, McCain's campaign nonetheless reflected some of its failings.

In an election year that clearly was going to be driven by the economy and cost-of-living concerns even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, McCain allowed an extension of the Bush tax cuts to become his major economic initiative. It's what conservatives demanded of him in the primaries.

There were two problems with this. One, they were the Bush tax cuts -- but McCain desperately needed to separate himself from the incumbent. Two, if a Democrat agreed to extending the middle-class part of the Bush cuts (as Obama inevitably did), McCain would be left alone championing only the higher-income tax cuts, i.e. "the tax cuts for the rich."

This was all the more senseless given that McCain originally voted against the Bush tax cuts as too skewed toward the wealthy. After winning the nomination, he could have found a way to wiggle out of his support for extending them and back a big middle-class tax cut instead, but he didn't. Income tax rates have come down so much since the 1970s that it's hard to deliver much relief to working and middle-class families without some sort of tax credit.

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