Unlike some who shall, in the interests of comity, remain nameless — conservatives do not cry foul when they lose elections. They do not whine that the election was stolen, or secured through dirty campaign tricks, or otherwise illegitimately won. Instead, they ask themselves where they went wrong.
The National Review Institute, a think tank founded by the late William F. Buckley and now headed by the dynamic and perspicacious Kate O’Beirne, hosted a daylong conference in Washington, D.C., to examine where conservatives need to go from here. It was a very clarifying day.
Yes, the Democrats got a big win on Nov. 4 and there is no gainsaying that Republicans and conservatives were rejected. Then again, it would have defied 200 years of American history if the party holding the White House for two terms and presiding over a huge financial panic should have been successful. Add to that the essentially content-free McCain campaign and you have yourself a drubbing.
But did liberal ideas win? Identification with the Republican party is down. But the number of voters who identify themselves as liberal (22 percent) is nearly identical to the results four years ago (21 percent). Thirty-four percent, the same as in 2004, still identify as conservatives. And while slightly more voters expressed a desire for more government activism in 2008 than in 2004, the panting eagerness in the press for a reprise of the New Deal (note the cover of Time magazine) is not widely shared by the electorate.
Lacking political strength for the battles to come, conservatives will have to rely on the strength of their ideas. The most important battle, Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center argued, will be health care. If health care is successfully nationalized in America, the case for a smaller and less bureaucratic state becomes immeasurably more difficult. Throughout the developed world, in countries that have adopted socialized medicine, every call to limit the size and scope of government is instantly caricatured as an attempt to take medicine away from the weak and sick. People become awfully attached to “free” medical care even though it is emphatically not free (it is supported through higher taxes), even though it requires waiting periods for care (even in cases of cancer and other serious illnesses), and even though it deprives people of the latest technology (the city of Pittsburgh has more MRI scanners than the entire nation of Canada).