The Right’s 18-Year Slump

by Quin Hillyer
Republican leaders need to consider the history of political and cultural failure on the right.

Quick challenge: After the 1996 welfare reforms, and other than the 2003 Bush tax cuts, name a successful national policy initiative that earned near-universal conservative applause.

Still trying to think of one, right?

Okay, how about now?

It need not be a huge one. A midsize policy success will do, or even smallish midsize.

Sorry: Time’s up.

It’s not that conservatives’ work was finished with that reform: The federal government has grown by astonishing amounts since then. Education has become more nationalized. Businesses are more harshly regulated. Far more ordinary business activity, and indeed far more of ordinary life, has been defined as criminal, though most people don’t know it. A myriad of niggling taxes and fees have been created or hiked in fields from communications to health care to energy. Half the 1996 welfare reform lies gutted. Food-stamp use and abuse has exploded. The federal government imposes homosexual marriage on states by executive (and judicial) fiat. The feds force explicitly race-based policies and bean counting on states, municipalities, schools, and even private businesses. Farm subsidies behave like the Hydra’s heads, with two emerging or expanding for each one newly limited.

The military has been grievously weakened in size, its standards and culture enfeebled via political correctness, its respect for faith trampled by Obamite hostility, its mission made uncertain and its sacrifices wasted by a commander-in-chief who actually disbelieves the worthiness and efficacy of his own policies and orders. (Even the signal success of the “surge” in Iraq was controversial — even on the political right — and then, of course, it was squandered by Obama.)

The culture has suffered. By numerous indices, America has become less free — but far more crassly libertine and, worse, accepting of ever-more crudity in the public square. Pornography has gone mainstream. Modesty has nearly vanished and, where still remnant, is treated by “mainstream” culture almost as a species of strange perversion unto itself.

The Left controls academia at all levels; it still controls the combination of mass-media outlets (news and entertainment) with by far the largest audiences; it dominates the world of large foundations; it almost wholly owns union leadership while running at least even in large corporate boardrooms; it controls much of law enforcement and most bureaucracies at all levels of government; and it overwhelms foreign-policy apparatuses at both the State Department and the CIA.

And with Republicans in Congress unable to work together well enough to achieve anything other than a series of abject surrenders, it appears that the only thing between us and total ruin is a putative one-vote majority, tenuous and inconstant and aging, on the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s not really the voters’ fault. They gave us a Republican president for eight years — six of those with a Republican House, and four with a Republican Senate. They’ve given us yet another three years with a Republican House again, along with significant majorities of Republican governors, attorneys general, and state legislators. And while it’s true that those state officials often produce admirable results, their ability to withstand the ravages of Washington is weakened by a grossly imperial presidency checked only slowly, if at all, by courts dependent eventually on the continued good health of Justices Scalia and Thomas. They are courts that have been insufficiently stocked, and then insufficiently defended, by a feckless Senate GOP.

So, if the pompous privateers at the Republican-party committees and the Edsel-level visionaries in Republican congressional leadership want to understand why conservative activists are so irritable and impatient, they need only consider this history of political and cultural failure. (My wife suggests that sentence would better end not with “failure” but with “Götterdämmerung.”)

It is no wonder, then, that some smart thinkers, not ordinarily prone to alarmism, assume all is nearly or entirely lost. Again and again, level-headed people tell me they are in despair or are convinced that the U.S. will be pushed past the proverbial tipping point unless matters are strongly reversed this very year.

These people are correct to feel real urgency. The situation is rather dire.

And yet . . . urgency should not engender panic. What’s needed now is someone, or several someones, with palpable potential for leadership, who can step forward, coolly calculate the terrain, and confidently call and execute a plan. Think of Joe Montana in the famous “John Candy” drive in Super Bowl XXIII. (Note to the well-motivated Ted Cruz and his supporters, however: Montana never once attempted a “bomb” but was content to move his team in seven- and eight-yard chunks.)

It’s far easier said than done, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable. Churchill’s vision of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” wasn’t a whine of defeat, it was an expression of resolve. It is in some combination of Montana and Churchill that conservatives soon must find their calling.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review.

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