Washington Post Op-Ed Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. explores the origins of the modern conservative movement this week. It’s not enough, Dionne argues, to give the nod to Newt Gingrich, who led the charge for the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, or even widely hailed conservative hero Ronald Reagan. It began many years earlier, in think tanks and through vigorous debates in publications such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.
This historical review is placed in context to the momentous political environment of 2006. The “Regan Revolution,” as some have termed it, has largely flamed out. Modern conservatism, which at one time was poised on multiple tenets, now seems shakily founded on the basis of aggressive foreign policy and support for conservative social policies such as opposition to gay rights and legal abortions. Indeed, small government libertarians feel all but abandoned in this period of Big Government Conservatism (or don’t-tax-and-spend) and moon-shot budget deficits. Meanwhile, ongoing scandals, policy failures, government incompetence, and the ongoing war in Iraq have mired both President Bush’s and the Republican Congress’ poll numbers in political quicksand.
Therefore, the outcome of the elections of 2006 and 2008 may lie in the Democratic Party’s ability to overturn the political dynamic that has ruled over recent times by positing a different, cogent, and persuasive argument for turning out our current crop of leaders. Dionne senses that the intellectual wheels are already turning on the center-left side of the political dial, though the question remains open as to whether or not this will manifest into sweeping Democratic victories anytime soon:
The biggest change is that moderates and liberals have begun to accept the fact that they cannot simply adjust to conservative dominance of the political debate and alter their ideas to fit the current consensus. As Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of the American Prospect, Democrats and their allies must destroy the current political “paradigm” based on “radical individualism” and replace it with a politics of the “common good.” Only a larger argument rooted in a different conception of government and society, Tomasky argues, will allow the party to “do a lot more than squeak by in this fall’s (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises.”
The successful Democratic candidates of the post-9/11, post-Bush age will convince voters that what serves the common good is also self-serving. In many ways this has always been the thread-the-needle trick that liberals have attempted (usually poorly) to perform, but it takes on a new urgency and new resonance in a global environment that is beset by complex and interconnected problems.
John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president who lost a close contest to incumbent George W. Bush, did not strike this argument forcefully or clearly enough. The still looming shadow of 9/11 dominated the election and precluded the Democrats from making a significantly new case for governing. John Edwards, Kerry’s ’04 running mate, has long made the fight against poverty a keystone of his political agenda. Using the Two Americas theme, he pushes this issue as a moral one. The successful candidates of ’06 and ’08, however, will pick up this theme and expand upon it.
Another important lesson of 2004 is that Democrats must and will fight for ownership of words such as “security” and “values.” Indeed, because of how much the political landscape has shifted in the last 18 months, Republicans will have to fight tooth-and-nail to maintain their longstanding and assumed superiority on issues such as national security and the oft-trotted out “family values.”
Security will mean real security, both at home and abroad. It is hoped that the lame duck years of the Bush administration will allow national security policies to become aligned to meet real and present threats, and not those based upon suspect ideological grounds. This alignment will include repairing and broadening our alliances around the world and reclaiming the moral leadership for which the United States has been historically known.
Values will connect to Tomasky’s “common good.” Middle class values will attain a new importance. A solid education, upwardly mobile job, and comprehensive health care are becoming more elusive for average American families. It will be fascinating to see if the “values debate” will be hijacked once again by those seeking to insert wedge issues into the political arena. And if the debate is hijacked, will a weary American electorate once more stand for it?
Finally, “truth” will vie for dominance with the classic and wooden notion of “character.” Truth will mean filling in the American public on things they might not want to hear: long-term fixes, sacrifice, explanations that span longer than the length of a sound bite. One could even imagine an age – in the mind’s eye if nowhere else – where the ability to tell the truth will trump a camera-friendly smile and words that tell you what you want to hear. Perhaps the rise of the Internet and the voracious seekers of the blogosphere will help to drive that new age.
Which Democrat will put all of these pieces into play successfully in 2008? It’s difficult to say. Certainly Senator Hillary Clinton, with her star power, fund raising prowess, and name recognition, will be the major force to contend with. But will she transcend the good-but-not-good-enough Democratic campaigns of recent years? She can and will if she harnesses an organic and emergent philosophy, rather than a laundry list of policy proposals that is simply different and theoretically better than what the other side is pushing.
You can feel the hum of the think tanks even now.