All Americans should be glad that a black American has been able to make it to the presidency, and hope that President-Elect Barack Obama’s time in office will redound to the country’s long-term benefit.
We wish the outcome of yesterday’s elections had been different. Liberals will shortly be in the driver’s seat in Washington in a way they have not been since the Great Society. The Democratic majority in Congress will be slightly smaller than the one that greeted President Clinton in 1993, but much more homogeneous in its liberalism.
Yet the public has not embraced many of the central aspects of liberalism. President-Elect Barack Obama’s record and positions put him well to the left of any president in the last four decades. But to judge from his campaign, he is a man who wants to cut taxes, defend an individual right to own guns, take a hard line on terrorists in Pakistan, reduce the abortion rate, allow people to keep their health-care plans, and keep trade free. The polls suggest that he was wise to run in this fashion: They show that the public remains as skeptical about federal activism and social liberalism as they have been for years.
The public has, however, clearly rejected the Republican party in its present configuration. It is always difficult for a party to maintain control of the White House after two terms in office. But both President Bush and Senator McCain made the task harder. Bush took too long to change course in Iraq and botched the response to Hurricane Katrina. McCain rarely stuck to one message or strategy. The financial crisis, for which we do not primarily blame either man, sealed the party’s fate.
But Republicans have been so unpopular for so long, and their failure has been so sweeping, that it is a mistake to dwell too long on the flaws of specific men or the consequences of particular events. Neither Bush nor McCain nor congressional Republicans gave much sign that they understood the frustrations that average Americans have felt over the last few years toward the economy and Washington, let alone that they had solutions. The exit polls demonstrate this failure again and again: in the questions about which party and candidates voters consider the most sympathetic to regular people; in the questions about who would do best for the economy; in the breakdown of the vote by income.
Sen. McCain’s principal economic message concerned spending and, more narrowly still, earmarks. Any winning conservative candidate would have to mention those themes. But it would also have to do what McCain did not, which was to link those issues to a bigger story about how government can hurt or help people as they seek to achieve their aspirations. Had McCain done more of this work early, he would have had credibility with the middle class when the financial crisis hit — and his attacks on Obama’s radical associations would have had added punch because he would have established his solidarity with the great American middle.
In our first editorial of the year, we wrote: “Conservatives believe that American interests and values are threatened by familial instability, runaway government, and weakness and confusion in foreign policy. Those convictions will retain serious political strength for as long as they are rooted in reality.” The contemporary conservative vocation, we added, was to breathe new life into those convictions. We stand by that judgment.
Conservatives should be willing to work with the Democrats in Washington where appropriate — assuming the Democrats are interested in having their help — but should be no more mealy-mouthed, apologetic, or timorous than the Democrats were after the 2004 election. When Democrats misread the election as a mandate for liberalism, and particularly when they betray the explicit and implicit commitments Obama has made during this campaign, Republicans should do everything they can to drive the point home, less in the expectation that they will change legislative outcomes than that they will move voters in advance of 2010 and 2012.
Recriminations have their place, and we look forward to a lively debate among conservatives about our future. But the most urgent task for conservatives is not to second-guess what decisions should have been made in 2003, 2005, or 2008. It is to devise an agenda — on health care, on taxes, on transportation, on energy — that Americans in the middle of the income distribution can be persuaded serves their interests going forward. If we can do that, we will not be, as so many pundits have said, at the end of a conservative era, but at the midpoint between two such eras. Doing that will take a great deal of wit. We will, alas, have plenty of time.