Conservatives are a gloomy bunch at the moment. Many believe that their party—the Republican Party—has lost its way and that it has done so by abandoning its principles. Aside from his foreign policy and Supreme Court appointments, conservatives find little to love about George W. Bush. His signature domestic policies include a vast expansion of government-financed health care (prescription-drug benefits), and increased funding for education while halfheartedly promoting vouchers and school choice. Bush also signed into law campaign-finance reform and supported a proposed immigration bill that would have allowed illegal aliens a path to citizenship. The Republican Congress is even worse, having indulged in an orgy of irresponsible spending. And now the party is set to nominate John McCain as its presidential nominee, a man who on several key issues has broken with Republican orthodoxy and voted with Democrats. For conservatives, a return to principles is the only way to be returned to power.
David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, begs to differ. "On the contrary," Frum writes in his smart new book, "Comeback," "the evidence suggests that a more consistent, more principled, more conservative administration would have been even more soundly rejected by the public than the unpopular Bush administration ever was." As Frum documents, every Bush policy that conservatives decry is in fact wildly popular. Public support for prescription-drug benefits ranges from 80 to 90 percent. And every Bush policy conservatives favor is regarded by the public with great suspicion. A majority of Americans regard the Bush tax cuts as "not worth it," and would prefer increased spending or balancing the budget to cutting taxes. In the one area where Bush remains unfailingly popular with conservatives—foreign policy—public support has also collapsed. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who believe that military force can reduce the risk of terrorism dropped sharply between 2002 and 2006, from 48 percent to 32 percent.
Conservatism grew powerful in the 1970s and 1980s because it proposed solutions appropriate to the problems of the age—a time when socialism was still a serious economic idea, when marginal tax rates reached 70 percent, and when the government regulated the price of oil and natural gas, interest rates on checking accounts and the number of television channels. The culture seemed under attack by a radical fringe. It was an age of stagflation and crime at home, as well as defeat and retreat abroad. Into this landscape came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, bearing a set of ideas about how to fix the world. Over the next three decades, most of their policies were tried. Many worked. Others didn't, but in any event, time passed and the world changed profoundly. Today, as Frum writes, "after three decades of tax cutting, most Americans no longer pay very much income tax." Inflation has been tamed, the economy does not seem overregulated to most, and crime is not at the forefront of people's consciousness. The culture has proved robust, and has in fact been enriched and broadened by its diversity. Abroad, the cold war is won and America sits atop an increasingly capitalist world. Whatever our problems, an even bigger military and more unilateralism are not seen as the solution.
Today's world has a different set of problems. A robust economy has not lifted the median wages of Americans by much. Most workers are insecure about health care, and most corporations are unnerved by its rising costs. Globalization is seen as a threat, bringing fierce competition from dozens of countries. The danger of Islamic militancy remains real and lasting, but few Americans believe they understand the phenomenon or know how best to combat it. They see our addiction to oil and the degradation of the environment as real dangers to a stable and successful future. Most crucially, Americans' views of the state are shifting. They don't want bigger government—a poll last year found that a majority (57 percent) still believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life—but they do want a smarter government, one that can help them be safe, secure and well prepared for political and economic challenges. In this context, conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic, like watching an old TV show from ... well, from the 1970s.
"The Emerging Democratic Majority," written in 2002, makes the case that perhaps for these broad reasons, the conservative tilt in U.S. politics is fast diminishing. It gained a brief respite after 9/11, when raised fears and heightened nationalism played to Republican advantages. But the trends are clear. Authors John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira note that several large groups have begun to vote Democratic consistently—women, college-educated professionals, youth and minorities. With the recent furor over immigration, the battle for Latinos and Asian-Americans is probably lost for the Republicans. Both groups voted solidly Democratic in 2006.
Political ideologies do not exist in a vacuum. They need to meet the problems of the world as it exists. Ordinary conservatives understand this, which may be why—despite the urgings of their ideological gurus—they have voted for McCain. He seems to understand that a new world requires new thinking.