Will the center hold? — Peter Wehner responds

Peter Wehner has responded to a post, in which I argued that he is too quick to view Obama’s lurch to the center as a comforting sign of continuing conservative ascendency. As always, Peter’s comments are insightful, and I’m pleased and honored to have caused him to publish them.

I agree with the central point of Peter’s response — that the political center has moved considerably to the right of where it was several decades ago. Peter does not really disagree with my point — that an Obama presidency might cause the center to move to the left — but he sees this as unlikely. I’m less confident than Peter that Obama would face the kind of resistance Clinton did in his first two years. Both of us are hoping we don’t find out.

Peter points out that, while Obama claims to transcend labels, McCain is happy to be called a conservative. This is, as Peter argues, a good fact. But the fact that this year, for the first time in decades, the Republicans nominated a candidate who must convince the base that he’s conservative may also be noteworthy.

JOHN adds: It seems to me that we are in a time of flux, in which lots of Americans hold confused and contradictory views. For example: 62% say they would prefer lower taxes with fewer government services. Solidly center-right. On the other hand, around half of all Americans have no particular objection to nationalizing the oil industry. That’s reminiscent of the bad old days of the 1970s.

I do think there is an opening here for a charismatic leader to drive the country to the left. The jury is still out on whether Barack Obama is such a leader. Why this opening should exist now is an interesting question. I think the answer is that we now have a generation of Americans who haven’t learned about liberalism the hard way.

There was never a time when Americans decided that liberalism didn’t sound good. Nor was there a time when a majority of Americans read Friedman, Hayek and Buckley and became intellectual conservatives. What did happen was that Americans voted for liberal policies that sounded good, and had to live with the bitter consequences: the pathologies that were spawned by the Great Society, declining cities, spiraling crime rates, high unemployment, inflation, economic decline, confiscatory tax rates, weakness abroad, and all the rest. For around 25 years, that bitter experience inoculated most voters against a return to liberalism.

But we now have a generation of voters who didn’t undergo that experience, and to whom liberalism once again sounds pretty good. There are no doubt some older voters whose memories have faded, too. So, consistent with the maxim that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, we may have to suffer through another bout of liberalism to re-learn the lessons of the past.

PAUL adds: In Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, David Frum presents a pretty strong case that public opinion is now running against conservatives on many key domestic issues. There are probably several reasons for this, with the one John discusses at the head of the list.

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