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A good time to be a conservative

By William Kristol
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bien-pensant conservative elites and establishment-friendly Republican big shots yearn for a more moderate, temperate and sophisticated Republican Party. It's not likely to happen. And probably just as well.

The Gallup poll released Monday shows the public's conservatism at a high-water mark. Some 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent who self-describe as moderates and 20 percent as liberals.

The conservative number is as high as it's been in the two decades that Gallup has been asking the question.

What's more, fully 72 percent of Republicans say they're conservative. Thirty-five percent of independents do so as well -- and presumably the percentage of conservatives among independents who might be inclined, where the rules permit it, to vote in GOP primaries would be much higher.

The implications of this for the Republican Party over the remaining three years of the Obama presidency are clear: The GOP is going to be pretty unapologetically conservative. There aren't going to be a lot of moderate Republican victories in intra-party skirmishes. And -- with the caveat that the political world can, of course, change quickly -- there will be a conservative Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

That nominee seems unlikely to be a current officeholder. Right now, the four leading candidates for the GOP nomination are private citizens. In a recent Rasmussen poll, the only candidates with double-digit support among Republicans were Mike Huckabee (at 29 percent), Mitt Romney (24 percent), Sarah Palin (18 percent) and Newt Gingrich (14 percent). These four are running way ahead of various senatorial and gubernatorial possibilities. So a party that has over the past two decades nominated a vice president (George H.W. Bush), a senator (Bob Dole), a governor (George W. Bush) and another senator (John McCain), now has as its front-runners four public figures who are, to one degree or another, outsiders.

To an extent this situation is the product of accidental circumstances, and it could change. But when one considers the anti-Washington and anti-political mood in the country, especially among conservatives, it's easier to see it not changing.

Indeed, I suspect that the person most likely to break into this group of front-runners would be a businessman who stands up against President Obama's big-government proposals, a retired general who objects to Obama's foreign policy or a civic activist who rallies the public against some liberal outrage. If a Republican elected official emerges, it will probably be because he or she champions some populist cause, not because that person is a fine representative or senator or governor.

One reason is that many Republicans lack confidence not just in Congress but even in Republican members of Congress. In last week's Post-ABC News poll, a plurality of respondents disapproved of Obama-type health-care reform. In other words, they agree with the Republicans in Congress. But when asked how much confidence they had in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country's future, only 19 percent of respondents expressed much confidence in the GOP -- well behind the confidence levels in congressional Democrats (34 percent) and Obama (49 percent).

Obviously, many Republicans and conservatives -- and lots of moderates and independents -- will be grateful to Mitch McConnell if he can stop ObamaCare, and to Jon Kyl if he can induce the president to embrace a stronger foreign policy. But it's unlikely that the minority party in Congress will be the source of bold new conservative leadership over the next three years. Even if Republicans pick up the House in 2010, the party's big ideas and themes for the 2012 presidential race will probably not emanate from Capitol Hill.

The center of gravity, I suspect, will instead lie with individuals such as Palin and Huckabee and Gingrich, media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and activists at town halls and tea parties. Some will lament this -- but over the past year, as those voices have dominated, conservatism has done pretty well in the body politic, and Republicans have narrowed the gap with Democrats in test ballots.

And next week, in real balloting, conservative Republicans are likely to win in Virginia, a state Obama carried. Meanwhile, a liberal Republican anointed by the GOP establishment for the special congressional election in Upstate New York will probably run third, behind the conservative Republican running on the Conservative Party line, who may in fact win.

The lesson activists around the country will take from this is that a vigorous, even if somewhat irritated, conservative/populist message seems to be more effective in revitalizing the Republican Party than an attempt to accommodate the wishes of liberal media elites.

So the GOP is likely, for the foreseeable future, to be of a conservative mind and in a populist mood. In American politics, there are worse things to be.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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