McCain's Problem Isn't His Tactics. It's GOP Ideas.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
At long last, the conservative juggernaut is cracking up. From the Reagan era until late 2005 or so, conservatives crushed progressives like me in debates as reliably as the Harlem Globetrotters owned the Washington Generals. The right would eloquently praise the virtues of free markets and the magic of the invisible hand. We would respond by stammering about the importance of regulation and a mixed economy, knowing even as the words came out that our audience was becoming bored.
Conservatives would get knowing laughs by mocking bureaucrats. We would drone on about how everyone can benefit from the experience and expertise of able civil servants. They promised to transform stodgy old Social Security into an exciting investment opportunity that would make everyone wealthy in retirement. We warned about the scheme's "transition costs" while swearing that the existing program would still be around for today's younger workers. They offered tax cuts. We talked amorphously about taxes as the price of a civilized society. After Sept. 11, 2001, they vowed to strike hard at terrorists anywhere and everywhere without worrying about the thumb-twiddlers at the United Nations. We stood up for the thumb-twiddlers.
But now, seemingly all of a sudden, conservatives are the ones who are tongue-tied, as demonstrated by Sen. John McCain's limping, message-free presidential campaign. McCain's ongoing difficulties in exciting voters aren't just a tactical problem; his woes stem largely from his long-standing adherence to a set of ideas that simply haven't worked in practice. The belief system and finely crafted policy pitches that enabled the right to dominate the war of ideas for the past 30 years have produced a relentless succession of governing failures, from Iraq to Katrina to the economy to the environment.
Largely as a consequence, the public's attitude toward government -- Ronald Reagan's bête noire -- has shifted. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that, by a 53-to-42 percent margin, Americans want government to "do more to solve problems"; a dozen years ago, respondents opposed government action by 2 to 1. Meanwhile, Republican constituency groups' long-standing determination to put aside their often significant differences and band together to support GOP candidates is fracturing: The libertarian darling Ron Paul and the evangelical Christian leader James C. Dobson are among the Republican bigwigs who haven't so far endorsed McCain. And the mountains of books and articles by conservative writers attacking liberals and liberalism have begun to be matched by new stacks of tomes exploring what went wrong with conservatism and what is to become of it.