How the Conservative Movement Looks from the Outside

Way outside, in the case of Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. He attended (or maybe sent someone else to attend, it isn’t clear) the Values Voter Summit in Washington, and offers observations on conservatism, much as an amateur apiarist might try to interpret a beehive:

Less than a year after an election that nearly wiped them out politically, conservatives are showing signs of life.

This is wishful thinking. Conservatives were no more “nearly wiped out politically” in 2008 than liberals were in 2000.

They are still searching for new leaders and new ideas. Their victories have been more about taking advantage of President Obama’s missteps than advancing an agenda that can recapture large numbers of voters.

The party that is out of power always gains ground mainly because of errors by the party in power. In fact, though, the conservative agenda, e.g. opposition to government medicine, appears to have the support of most voters.

But they have shown in recent weeks that they can have at least some influence as the voice of the opposition — and in the process energize what remains of their movement.

This is rather a ludicrous understatement. Far from merely having “some influence as the voice of the opposition,” conservatives have stopped cold some of the most important aspects of the Obama administration’s agenda–government health care, cap and trade, and card check. And just last week, liberals were forced to knuckle under to conservative measures to strip ACORN, an arm of the Democratic Party, of federal funding. And “what remains of their movement” is more vigorous than it’s been since 1994.

Whatever problems the conservative movement has encountered — a string of electoral defeats, evidence that its membership is getting smaller and older, the demands of coming up with a new ideological agenda to meet changing times — these recent victories have given new hope to this formerly dispirited base of the Republican Party that it can still command public attention and influence policy in Washington.

There is no evidence that the conservative movement is getting smaller. Public opinion surveys continue to show that conservatives outnumber liberals by close to two to one. And the movement isn’t getting older, either, except to the extent that many seniors have been motivated to oppose Obamacare. And the movement is not just intact, it is on fire, clearly representing the most dynamic phenomenon in American politics today.

Yet while the conservative movement seems to be finding its voice again, it may be premature to say that it is back on its feet. At a time when the Republican Party is in search of new leaders, the procession of familiar faces on stage Friday and in the audience was striking. Two of the party’s biggest names — Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 — did not show up at all, citing scheduling conflicts.

So, which is it? Familiar faces showed up, or familiar faces skipped the event? In fact, speakers included Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Jim Demint, John Boehner, Rick Perry, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor and others. That seems like plenty of new faces. Next, Nagourney predictably tries to cajole Republicans into abandoning the social issues:

Many Republicans have been arguing that the party’s focus on social issues is a mistake at a time when voters are concerned about the economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the emphasis at the summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, was still decidedly on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who caused a furor by denouncing same-sex marriage at the Miss USA contest, as she declared that “God chose me” to make the case she made.

“The party’s focus on social issues?” What focus is that? As far as I can see, the Republican Party has been focused, laser-like, on the economic and foreign policy issues that the Obama administration is botching so badly. Where have we seen evidence of any emphasis on social issues?
Of course, the event that Nagourney wrote about was the Value Voters Summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council. So, sure, there was talk about the social issues. If Nagourney had covered an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation or the Club for Growth, not so much. But Nagourney, an open homosexual, has long been obsessed with social conservatives in the Republican Party. Everything he writes about them is in the nature of special pleading. The focus on social issues is his, not the Republican Party’s.

It is not so much that the political climate is shifting to the right; it is more that the conservative movement has found ways to break through and get attention — often with decidedly unorthodox methods, including combative town-hall-style meetings. And the conservative movement has been helped by the backlash to the cost and sheer ambition of Mr. Obama’s first-year agenda: the big economic stimulus package, the intervention in the automobile industry and the effort to reshape the health care system. The argument that the White House may be overreaching has, at the very least, given conservatives an opening.

Of course: the out-party always relies on the in-party to give it an opening. But the political climate is, indeed, shifting to the right, however much Nagourney may hate to admit it. Polls show that most voters favor Republicans for Congress, not Democrats, and support the Republican position on most issues. All depends on how the economy performs, of course, but at the moment the 2010 election is shaping up as a bad year for Nagourney’s Democrats. So there is a certain whistling-in-the-graveyard aspect to his condescension.

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