Much of the talk surrounding this year's midterm elections is about whether this election constitutes a major political realignment. Ten years ago, the country went conservative and Republican. Is it now going liberal and Democrat?In the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans took control of Congress, largely based on the success of the “Contract with America,” a set of populist conservative political proposals that won widespread support among Americans. Now, some 12 years later, many pundits seem to think that Americans are poised to turn in another direction.
Are Americans disenchanted with conservatism?
If you were to ask this question of many liberal Democrats, the answer would undoubtedly be, “Yes.” And if Democrats take the field on November 8th, there will undoubtedly be those among them who will attribute the victory to a rejection of conservative rule.
But there are good reasons to reject this claim, should it come. First, the Democrats have not themselves set forth any coherent set of political principles by which they are asking voters to be judged. In other words, there is no liberal “Contract with America.” There is opposition to the Iraq war, and questions about the competence of Republicans to lead, but there is no set of positive political prescriptions they are asking voters to approve by voting Democrat, and there are legitimate questions about whether the Iraq war is the consequence of conservative policy.
The second reason to reject any claim that a Democratic victory is a victory for liberalism has to do with Republicans themselves. If voters reject Republicans at the polls, will it have been because they don’t like their conservative policies?
The answer to this question requires an answer to two other questions. First, has the Republican reign in Washington been a conservative one in the first place? The second is this: Have Republicans set forth any set of principles during this election that we can say would be rejected in a Democratic win?
If Democrats take congress on November 8th, will it have been a defeat for conservatism, or simply a defeat for the Republican Party? Will it have been because Americans are disenchanted with conservatism or simply because they are disenchanted with Republicans who claim, but may not actually act like, conservatives?
Serious conservatives need to ask themselves these questions partly because, if Republicans are sent home this fall, recriminations will come—and they will be aimed at those who Republicans think abandoned them at the polls. If a Republican defeat comes, conservatives—particularly social conservatives—will be held responsible.
The smell of blame is already in the air.
If Republicans should lose control of Congress, which now seems possible, if not likely, it should be clear to everyone, especially conservatives, why it happened. Leaders in the Republican Party need to be fully aware of why so many conservatives would not show up at the polls—and be holding their noses when they do.
How should conservatives assess the success of Republican rule in Washington since the Contract with America brought them to power? Is there a set of conservative criteria by which we can judge the success or failure of Republican dominance in Washington over the last decade?
I submit that there is, and that there are specific questions conservatives should ask themselves about foreign and domestic policy that can shed light on whether the national Republican Party, as a nominally conservative party, has failed or succeeded:
Has government become bigger or smaller? Is it more or less intrusive? Republicans will point to welfare reform legislation, probably the most significant and effective piece of conservative legislation passed in the 20th century. Disaffected conservatives, however, will point to Republican sponsored legislation implementing a costly new prescription drug entitlement as an act Lyndon Johnson would have envied. Many conservatives ask why, since Bush took office, the size of government has increase by a frightening 25 percent, and why so-called conservative Republicans cannot seem to find a voice to articulate the case against minimum wage laws. And note that the greatest success in terms of rolling back government power (welfare reform) came during the Clinton, not the Bush, administration.
Do American children stand a better or worse chance of being adequately educated? There are some good aspects to the No Child Left Behind Act, passed at the behest of President Bush. But why was it that many influential conservative groups opposed the legislation when it passed—and Ted Kennedy supported it? Many of these groups still see the bill as an egregious example of legislation that dramatically expanded a department of government (the Education Department) that many Republican leaders had vowed to downsize, and did little to practically affect what happens in the nation’s public schools. Some conservatives also want to know why, after the passage of No Child Left Behind, the administration put forth no further effort on important educational initiatives such as school choice?
Are our basic freedoms more or less secure? Liberals aren’t the only ones who have problems with the “Patriot Act,” as well as recent legislation giving the President the power to suspend habeas corpus at a whim . The questions many conservatives are asking themselves is whether the best way to protect individual freedoms is to pass laws that place limitations on those very freedoms. There are also questions as to the effectiveness of many of the policies implemented since 9/11. It is not good when your erstwhile supporters are going to the polls with images of an old lady with a walker being frisked at the airport while the next passenger, sporting a robe and turban, is whisked on through.
Has the issue of immigration been adequately dealt with? Why was it that an immigration bill took 12 years to get through Congress? And will a 700-mile fence along a border much longer than that solve the problem—if it is built at all (the bill provides the money to build the fence, but doesn’t actually require that it be built).
Are policies now more or less favorable to the traditional family? Social conservatives put Republicans in power. Have they been fully taken into account when it comes to the Republican policy agenda? Republican supporters will point to the fact that the Supreme Court has shifted significantly to the right--no mean achievement. But there are those who want to know how long it is going to take to revisit the disastrous Roe vs. Wade decision, and why, when Republicans control both the Presidency and the Congress, there appears to be no hope of passing a Constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage.
Is America more or less respected in the world? Although both Republicans and Democrats voted for the Iraq War when preparations were being made to go in, there were voices on the right warning against it. They included the likes of Pat Buchanan, whose book A Republic, Not an Empire, stated the conservative case against interventionist foreign policy with rare eloquence. But the neoconservative-dominated foreign policy establishment in Washington dismissed Buchanan’s warnings, and has lived to regret it. Now the war is the biggest drag on Republican aspirations to maintain their Congressional majority. Buchanan warned that adventurous military expeditions like that in Iraq would drain the nation’s financial coffers and hurt our prestige overseas. He was right on both counts.
Has the power of the federal judiciary over matters of policy been strengthened or weakened? This is the one area in which Republicans can claim relatively unadulterated success. Bush’s two appointments to the Supreme Court—John Roberts and Samuel Alito—are models of what conservative justices should be. In fact, many conservative voted for Bush during his second term solely because they knew the importance of replacing retiring justices with men or women who would interpret the law, not manufacture it.
But if you set the appointment of conservative judges aside, are there enough Republican successes to inspire any real enthusiasm among conservatives this election season? Should we somehow have expected more?
When liberals take office, they use their power to further their agenda with admirable aggressiveness. But to many of their conservative supporters, it seems as if Republicans have neither the courage nor the ability to articulate the case for conservative principles—nor to aggressively implement them when they get the chance. Republicans need to remind themselves what they believe in and why, and then they need to find the backbone to stand up for it.
There is no evidence that this election is about either the approval of liberal policies, since none have been proposed, or the rejection of conservative ones, since there are legitimate questions as to how aggressively they have been attempted. Americans are not disenchanted with conservatism; but many conservatives are disenchanted with the Republican Party.
If the Democrats win in November, it may well be less the result of the ascendancy of a rejuvenated liberalism than the revenge of a disenchanted conservatism.
© Martin Cothran 2006. All rights reserved. These comments are the personal opinions of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official opinion of any other persons or organizations.