The Liberal Edge?

There is a growing meme among the media and the punditry that conservatism has finally reached its end.  Even some conservatives wonder if the end is nigh.  In a recent New York Post column, John Podhoretz argues that the country had actually tilted toward liberalism in the 2000 election, in which liberal candidates won 51% of the combined popular vote. He posits that 2002 and 2004 could be mere aberrations, as voters turned toward Republicans in 2002 and 2004 solely due to the exigencies of 9-11.  As 9-11 faded from memory, voters basically picked up where they left off in 2000, voting in Democratic majorities in 2006.

Podhoretz is not alone.  John Judis and Ruy Teixeira hypothesized as early as 2001 that demographic changes would make Democrats the majority party by decade’s end.  And much ink has been spilled about a Pew survey that reports that Democrats have opened a wide advantage over Republicans in party identification, and that shows some conservative values declining since 1994. 

I do not dismiss any of this out of hand.  We as a country may be taking a left turn.  But there are important countervailing considerations.  First, at least part of the GOP’s present problem is an almost-inevitable outcome of six years of one-party rule, since it is nearly impossible to go through eight years of a Presidency without a recession, war, major scandal, or policy overreach (or, as the case may be, all four.)  To be honest, it puzzles me that conservatives are so despairing over what is still the narrowest Democratic majority in 50 years.  In the past sixty years no party other than the GOP of 2000, 2002, and 2004 and the Democrats of 1960, ’62, ’64 (and ’66) has had control of Congress and the Presidency handed to them in three consecutive elections.  Every President since Teddy Roosevelt has left office with fewer seats in the Congress than he had on the day he was sworn in; even the great FDR left Truman with 71 fewer seats than he had when Democrats took the oval office in 1932.  Losing a substantial number of seats from 2000-2006 is the historical norm, not prima facie proof of a realignment.

Second, as Jay Cost has written, one should beware supposed seers bearing deterministic theories of history.  Who in 1974 would have predicted a GOP landslide in 1980?  Who in 1928 would have predicted Democratic dominance beginning in two years?  Even on the issue level things change, and change quickly: Few objective observers expected Democrats to essentially cede the gun control issue after 2000, or to make gains on the national security issue after 2004.  In other words, even assuming that conservatism is in trouble in the short-term, it is by no means doomed in the medium-to-long term.

Third, polling data is at best inconclusive on a long-term anti-conservative shift.  While Pew does show a drop-off in Republican party ID of late, other polls show a much less marked decline in party identification. And while conservative values do not fare as well as they did in the Pew poll of 1994, conservative performance that year was arguably a spike arising from the last time that a President pursued an aggressively liberal agenda.  In fact, the poll reveals attitudes that are not appreciably less conservative when measured against the heyday of the Reagan years in 1987 (save on gay rights and a few other issues).  More people actually say prayer is a part of their daily life, and that they never doubt the existence of God.  Roughly two-thirds of the country believes that the poor are too dependent on government programs, two-thirds disagree that success in life is determined by forces outside of our control, and two-thirds agree that when something is run by the government, it is inefficient and wasteful.  For those who believe that government-run health care is inevitable, a different poll shows that while 53% claim they are willing to pay higher taxes for health care, that is actually significantly lower than the percentage who responded affirmatively in 1993, shortly before HillaryCare crashed and burned

Fourth, even in the very short term, the death of conservatism is overstated.  While George W. Bush is currently a drag on the party, it becomes someone else’s party in 2008.  Those contenders fare well in polls.  A recent Gallup poll shows that voters trust Rudy Giuliani to handle the economy at about the same levels as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; McCain is further behind but leads Edwards.  Giuliani and McCain have double-digit leads on fighting terrorism over the three Democrats, and are even when it comes to handling the War in Iraq — which astounding given the public’s mood.  When Mitt Romney’s and Fred Thompson’s numbers are adjusted to split the substantial number of voters that have no opinion of them, they perform similarly well.  (The GOP candidates trail in the health care measurement, but that is historically true.)

Finally, the Democrats are simply not polling as well as they should be given the GOP’s supposed doldrums.  Hillary is unable to top 50% against a fairly obscure Republican like Ron Paul.  Hillary actually trails Rudy Giuliani, and worse (from her perspective) trails Fred Thompson, who trails her significantly in name recognition. And if the surge really is working, these numbers are likely to improve for the GOP.

I don’t wish to overstate my case.  Things are bleaker for Republicans heading into 2008 than they looked a few years ago.  The possibility of President Hillary is more real than I ever would have suspected.  The left is certainly resurgent among the Democrats.  Bear in mind, though, that it is an article of faith among Republicans that conservatism comes to power because liberalism doesn’t work.  In other words, if we really are headed for a do-over of the 1960s, it should lead to a repeat of the 1970s and 80s.  It still remains to be seen whether or not Republicans are doomed in the long run, and it may well be that this President Clinton will be the boon for Republicans that the last President Clinton proved to be.


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