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.
If McCain had proposed one, it would have elicited howls from supply-side purists. By the end of the campaign, of course, McCain was forced into trying to depict Obama's tax credits as "socialism" and "welfare." This left him open to one of Obama's most devastating rejoinders: "John McCain is so out of touch with the struggles you are facing that he must be the first politician in history to call a tax cut for working people 'welfare.' "
Actually, when the effect of McCain's health-care plan, which included a $5,000-per-family tax credit, was factored in, McCain proposed giving more tax relief to typical families than Obama. But most of the McCain campaign seemed unaware of this, and the candidate never made the argument.
His health plan was innovative, representing years of work by conservative policy wonks to develop an alternative both to the current employer-based system and to government-heavy liberal plans. Employer health benefits would have been taxed for the first time, but that tax would have been more than offset in the vast majority of cases by the new credit.
But McCain didn't seem to have a firm grasp on his own plan, and the Obama campaign successfully distorted it as a huge new tax increase. Conservatives were outraged by many things during the election season, but Obama's dishonest and brutally effective attack on McCain's plan wasn't one of them. Even though it addresses a top public concern, health-care policy still doesn't move the right.
At times, conservatives seemed bizarrely at odds with public sentiment. As the financial system was teetering on the verge of meltdown, conservative blogs were afire with the debate over Obama's association with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers. This was fair game, but it was never going to crowd out the debate over the economy, as some conservatives seemed to hope. Nor was the McCain campaign going to be able to "change the subject" from the economy, as one Republican operative infamously said.
This is where social issues come in. There has been much talk about how they've lost their power, or how Gov. Sarah Palin hurt the ticket as a brazen culture warrior. But bans on same-sex marriage passed in California, Arizona and Florida last Tuesday, and Obama was careful not to stoke hot-button debates on guns or abortion. Palin's problems, meanwhile, had more to do with her under-preparation than with her views on social issues. The GOP's cultural conservatism is an asset so long as it's not seen as an attempt to distract voters from other issues that they care about, such as the economy.
Connecting better on the economy and middle-class pocketbook and quality-of-life issues will go a long way toward alleviating the troubles the GOP had in reaching moderates, suburbanites and even Latinos this year. It will require refreshing the conservative policy arsenal with innovative proposals that will look more like McCain's health-care plan than the old tried and true, and it will mean engaging on concerns such as congestion and college tuition that have traditionally been beneath conservative notice.
As grim as things now seem for the right, there's no reason to descend into the slough of despond. Just four years ago, Republicans were hailing the advent of a new Republican majority, remember? One of the wisest baseball cliches is: "You're never as good as you seem when you're winning and never as bad as you seem when you're losing."
Even in unimaginably challenging conditions for Republicans, the ideological composition of the election was essentially unchanged from 2004. Only 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals. The rest were moderates or conservatives.
It is indeed, as conservatives have been insisting in recent days, a center-right country. The question is how to appeal to the center again.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.