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Conservatives, fear not

Tue Jun 3, 12:16 AM ET

By Jonah Goldberg “Cheer up,” advised writer Philander Johnson, “for the worst is yet to come.” That’s good advice for conservatives these days. Things are grim, particularly for the GOP. The share of Americans who describe themselves as Republicans is plummeting so quickly, pretty soon more voters will call themselves Hobbits than Republicans. (Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY) While Barack Obama is surprisingly weak given all of the Democrats’ advantages, the smart money remains that the Democrats will capture the White House and expand their majorities in Congress considerably. The issue climate is arguably even worse. From Social Security to health care to the environment, Democrats have the wind at their backs. If Obama continued to run from the left and won in November, Democrats would be able to claim the biggest mandate for liberalism since 1964. Democrats would be able to dispatch a cavalry of young judicial reinforcements to renew the effort to push the courts ever further to the left. Some form of socialized medicine would be implemented. President Obama would in all likelihood fulfill his pledge to pull out of Iraq. Taxes would go up. Farm subsidies increase. State-level efforts to establish gay marriage by undemocratic fiat would find eager accomplices in Congress and the Justice Department. Draconian taxes on energy use — often hidden behind cap-and-trade schemes — would be implemented in the name of combating global warming. The “Fairness Doctrine” might be restored to silence conservative media. There are even rumors that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pondering legislation that would require dogs to take orders from cats. Plight of the right The knife of doom cuts deeper still. The intellectual press is positively brimming with mostly gleeful autopsy reports about conservatism’s alleged demise. In a wandering piece for The New Yorker, titled “The Fall of Conservatism,” George Packer simultaneously argues that the right is out of ideas and that it really never had any worth speaking of in the first place. In discussions, public and private, you often hear phrases such as brain-dead, spent, exhausted, used up, played-out-like-Carrot Top and the like to describe the plight of the right. A particularly popular line of argument found all over the place holds that conservatism is a pale shadow of what it was in the days of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and now William F. Buckley. Indeed, many liberals have adopted the annoying habit of talking about Reagan, Goldwater and Buckley as if they have always loved and respected them. It reminds one of that line from Stripes where Bill Murray says to his girlfriend, “Tito Puente’s gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.’ ” Regardless, all this gloom and doom is overdone. Conservatives have a natural inclination toward pessimism. Back in 1968 — when Packer et al thought conservatism was ascendant — many conservatives thought it was done. Richard Nixon’s thoroughly liberal domestic agenda, and the willingness of conservatives to tolerate it, was proof according to conservative intellectual Brent Bozell that conservatism had “ceased to be an important political force in America.” People need to remember that there’s a difference between “conservatives” and “Republicans.” One reason the Republican “brand” has been so badly tarnished is that Republicans lost credibility as conservatives. They spent money like a pimp with a week to live. They got comfortable with power and the perks that come with it, and they tolerated cronyism and incompetence. And while the GOP is the more conservative of the two parties — and hence the natural home for the American right — it needs to be remembered that Republican failures are not synonymous with conservative ones. Also, the strength of the conservative establishment shouldn’t be discounted. In 1964, Goldwater was almost alone, relying on a couple of magazines to champion his cause. Today, there is an enormous conservative intellectual infrastructure, largely independent of the Republican Party. From proliferating state-level think tanks to massive organizations based in Washington, D.C., such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, the causes of limited government, defending life and promoting free markets are hardly without champions. And thanks to talk radio, Fox News and a general acceptance of conservatism as a legitimate viewpoint, it has never been easier for conservatives to get their arguments to the public. Reality bites Reality could yet prove to be the grinder for a lot of liberal baloney. After New York Mayor Ed Koch lost his re-election bid, he was asked whether he would ever run again. He responded, “No, the people threw me out. Now they must be punished.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Parties — and voters — learn from their own mistakes and those of others. “Example is the school of mankind,” noted Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, “and they will learn at no other.” The GOP made some awful blunders, and it is paying the price for them. But such payments can also purchase redemption if you learn the right lessons. Moreover, if conservatives are right about their ideas — and I think they are — then socialized medicine won’t work, high taxes will be counterproductive, and Obama’s promise to mesmerize foreign leaders with his listening skills will not survive contact with our enemies. Al-Qaeda will not defang itself into a Muslim version of the Shriners simply because our president’s middle name is Hussein. T.S. Eliot was right. There are no truly won causes because there are no truly lost causes. Conservatism’s got a lot of life left in it, in part because conservatism is simply a part of American life. And because conservatism has always done better on offense than on defense, the coming liberal maelstrom might be carrying with it the seeds of a conservative revival as well. Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. He is also a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

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