Slate's Dave Weigel called last week with a tough question: People such as Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Brooks, and myself, he pointed out, have urged Republicans to modernize their message and broaden their appeal. Republicans, of course, have mostly ignored us. Despite that, the GOP is nevertheless poised to win a grand political landslide next month. "Umm ..." Weigel asked, "weren't you guys totally wrong?”
Obviously, it's not impossible that I am, indeed, totally wrong. Or that the Tea Party is right, and America is ready to embrace a fusion of libertarian economics, cultural resentment, and coded racial messaging. Perhaps it's possible to balance the budget while leaving Medicare as is, cutting taxes, and fighting two wars.
However, two broad concerns drove me onto the deviationist path that has vexed so many of my conservative friends. And both of these worries will have to be resolved before I swallow my tea.
The first concern is political. The conservative movement in which I have spent my life has been narrowing since the 1990s. It has drawn more and more of its support from a smaller and smaller slice of the nation: white people who did not finish college, especially those who are older and those who are male.
Has that changed? It will be very interesting to see which voters of the less than 40 percent of the electorate likely to turn out in November actually show up at the polls. If 2010 proves that Republicans can win big among rich whites aged 65 and over, well, we knew that already.
But that won't fix the problem of the dwindling appeal of Republicans to the under-55s, to those who make less than $100,000, to non-whites, non-churchgoers, women, and the unmarried. And all those voters will be coming out to play two years from now — and in larger and larger numbers in the elections to come.
It's worth recalling some recent British political history. In 1997, Tony Blair won an epic victory for Britain's Labor party. Two years later, in the 1999 European parliamentary elections, the Conservatives won a sweeping counter-victory. Was that the end of Tony Blair? Not exactly. In 1997, more than 31 million Britons voted. In 1999, 10 million did. Different electorate, different result.
The second concern worries me even more, and that involves policy.
Between 2001 and 2007, Republicans gained something they had not had for any comparable length of time since the 1920s: the presidency, plus majorities in both houses of Congress. The results? Not so good.
This failure of governance seems to demand some rethinking. "Say it louder," at least in my book, does not qualify as rethinking. Yet what's the Tea Party answer to the failures of the George W. Bush years? Any ideas there to get average incomes rising again? To balance the budget of the United States once the recession ends? To accelerate recovery from the recession? To defend the nation at affordable cost? To improve educational outcomes? To protect the natural environment? To deliver a better deal to the bottom two-thirds of the American population?
Winning elections is great, but it's not an end in and of itself. An election is only a means to an end: Governing is the end, governing in ways that benefit the large preponderance of the people, not just a select few.
Have these two years of militant conservatism moved Republicans any closer to that end? I fear we are further away than ever – and that the case for conservative reform, however jeered at on Election Night, will emerge stronger and more urgent from the November vote.
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