The concept of the “end of conservatism” holds the same article-of-faith status for many of today’s liberals that the “final crisis of capitalism” held for the wannabe Marxist left of my day. But even the infantile left of 1970 was not as silly as E.J. Dionne, who detects “the end of the right” in legislative wrangling over the minimum wage.
Like the left of 35 years ago, Dionne talks incessantly about the big historical picture while lacking the capacity to see beyond a few months’ worth of headlines. Thus, Dionne proclaims that “there is nothing close to a conservative majority in the United States.” But that has been true for as long as I can remember — the transformation during the past 45 years has consisted of conservatives becoming more numerous than liberals, not becoming a majority. During my political lifetime, with the exception of the Reagan administration when Democrats controlled the House for all eight years, conservatives have either been shut out of the executive branch or have participated in, at best, a center-right administration — the essentially non-conservative Nixon and Ford administrations, the mildly conservative Bush I administration, and the compassionately conservative Bush II administration.
The inherent tension in these coalition administrations invariably deepens as the years go by. And even in the absence of such tension, it is quite difficult for any party or coalition to hold the White House for more than eight years. An economic slump, a perceived major foreign policy blunder, or a general sense of malaise will almost always stand in the way. Moreover, history shows that it is extraordinarily difficult for a party in control of the White House for six years to do well in off-year congressional elections, unless it has been pummeled earlier on in the administration.
Thus, it is foolish for Dionne to perceive the current electoral difficulties faced by the Republican party as portending “the end of the right.” Republicans, including conservative Republicans, have taken their lumps in elections before, but the movement has continued to gain ground. The best example, of course, occurred in 1992 when Bush-I captured less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Uncoupled from the policies of an unpopular center-right administration, conservatives were able two years later to recapture both houses of Congress. Conservatives have fairly steadily gained ground at the expense of liberals because voters generally are more in tune with our low tax, anti-big government, socially conservative, and pro-robust defense views than with the opposite approaches embraced by liberals. But there will always be seasons when this is less (or even not) so.
Dionne provides no reason to believe that the dynamic of the past decades will change. Nor does he explain why electoral defeat in 2006 (likely) and 2008 (possible, especially if conservatives are unwilling to participate in a center-right coalition that is more centrist than the current one) will signal long-term difficulties for conservatives. He cites a number of issues that he thinks divide conservatives — spending, the war in Iraq, immigration, and stem cell research. But “spending” does not divide conservatives at all, and if the Republicans lose power it is not likely to continue even to divide Republican politicians. The war in Iraq does not divide conservatives in important ways either. Most conservatives do not favor abandoning Iraq. And looking ahead, most conservatives will favor a more aggressive response to terrorism and terrorist states than liberals will favor, while being cautious (perhaps too cautious) about commiting a large number of troops to foreign combat. Looking backwards, conservatives will have interesting debates about whether, knowing what we think we now know, the Iraq war was “profoundly unconservative.” But that academic debate cannot reasonably be expected to cause a serious rift in the movement going forward.
Nor are conservative likely to divide profoundly over immigration. Most conservatives will, in Dionne’s words, “see porous borders as a major security threat.” In any case, there’s no reason to believe that this issue will divide conservatives more than liberals, who will find it difficult to forge an approach that appeals simultaneously to hispanic, black, professional, and white working class voters. Finally, stem cell research (a true “wedge” issue over which I part company with most social conservatives) is unlikely to be a major issue for very long. The Bush position will not prevail and, at that point, the matter should cease to be an issue over which Republicans have any prospect of losing votes. Those who liked the Bush position, or a harder line, will remain Republican voters.
But, hey, there’s always the minimum wage.