Lessons Learned
The top takeaways from 2009.


What can we learn from 2009? National Review Online asked a few friends to name the most important lesson of this past year.

“Say not, the struggle naught availeth.” This is the lesson of 2009.

In 2008, liberalism was glorified in the person of Barack Obama. The apotheosis was election night, when the revelry continued into the wee hours (I even heard someone singing “The Star Spangled Banner”). The mood continued with the inauguration. I trained down to D.C. to cover it. In my car were Sir Ian McKellen and Moby. More important was the attitude of normal people. My trainer, a Bahamian immigrant, not a political man, bombarded me with questions: What is the first thing a new president does? etc. Obama came in on a tide of partisan triumph, history being made, and ordinary goodwill.

Flash forward. The economy limps. Congress is a cohort of hacks. Obama is a plain old president, at home and abroad. Most interesting, Obama has chosen the right policy in Afghanistan — but it is one that his enemies will support, and his base will oppose.

Happy days are not here again, obviously. I would still bet on Obama’s being reelected. Tea parties and Going Rogue are all good, but we need to do more, much more. But westward, look, the land is — brighter.

– Rick Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.

John Ensign. Mark Sanford. David Letterman. Tiger Woods. This year has been a bad one for marriage. Men such as these from the worlds of politics, entertainment, and sports have been exposed for cheating on their wives and are quickly defended by their lawyers and PR representatives. 

Of all the reactions I’ve heard or read since the world’s best “driver” shanked his Escalade into a fire hydrant after Thanksgiving and women not named Elin started coming forward from the gallery with tales of sex and romance, the one that bothers me most is this: “Everyone does it.” Increasingly, a public fascinated with sex and celebrity assumes every successful married male athlete, politician, or business person is living a double life.

I hate the impact these revelations have had on Darlene (Ensign), Jenny (Sanford), Regina (Letterman), Elin (Woods), and all their children, but I really hate the impact their husbands’ behavior has on the reputations of others in their professions who aren’t “doing it.”

For example, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson, Justin Leonard, Paul Azinger, and Tom Lehman have won 41 professional golf tournaments, including three British Opens and a Masters, earning $110 million, and captained the last two American Ryder Cup teams — all while being faithful men of faith, honorable husbands and fathers, and credible role models. May 2010 be the year of those “who aren’t doing it.”

– Mark DeMoss is president of the DeMoss Group, an Atlanta-based public-relations firm, and author of The Little Red Book of Wisdom blog at First Things.

Lesson of 2009: To understand Obama, look to Carter, not Clinton. Obama and Carter are the nation’s two McGovernite presidents. Both entered office with terribly earnest naïveté respecting the world at large — especially America’s enemies — with a dislike of Israel, a distaste for American power, and a native gift for big economic mistakes. Carter lacked Obama’s mouth-of-gold, but Obama lacks the fluffy squeeze-toy quality Carter had originally. Both brood deeply on the lessons of Vietnam, which they have both got wrong. Most presidents grow in office, but Carter and to date Obama have shrunk the office instead.

Carter lost Iran, and Iran is one of Obama’s two biggest challenges and (so far) disasters. To learn the other, look to Carter: His happy-talk encouraged the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today’s dawning threat in not China but Russia; Russia wants her empire back. Obama has already undermined our Polish and Czech supporters. Khrushchev saw a weak, young president and danced right up to the edge of nuclear war. But that was long ago. Today Russian pride is in much worse shape, her rulers are far less happy with the map of the world — and Putin sees another weak, young president. Fasten your safety belts.

– David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard.

The big lesson of 2009 is the resiliency of liberalism. A lot of conservatives thought that the Reagan Revolution and its aftereffects had permanently tamed modern liberalism. Indeed, in the 1990s, Pres. Bill Clinton seemed to have reached the same conclusion: that the era of big government was over, that the only kind of liberalism that was viable post-Reagan was the chastened, triangulating sort. Barack Obama never subscribed to that theory, and he’s been proven right. Liberalism remains in America’s political bloodstream, capable of flaring up into a major infection whenever the body politic’s defenses are sufficiently weakened, as they were in George W. Bush’s second term. Conservatism was then at a low ebb, and Obama saw his chance, his “moment.” The panic over the financial collapse made the moment even bigger.

Now the Reagan Revolution faces the incipient challenge of the Obama Revolution. The patient has rallied a bit and liberalism is struggling, but no one should underestimate it. If Obama manages to sign some kind of health-care-reform bill, as seems likely, he will not only have fulfilled a promise made by Franklin Roosevelt 65 years ago, he will have contributed mightily to renewing the Left’s self-fulfilling myth of the inevitability of liberal social reforms. It’s the decline of that myth that Obama tried to counter with his campaign of Hope and Change. Soon he may have evidence that Hope avails and that the Change has begun. Victory in the health-care battle, even a partial and costly victory, will renew liberalism’s confidence that history is on the side of Big, and Bigger, Government.

To counter that resurgence, conservatives will have to summon the will and the understanding for the kind of all-out, high-stakes battle they didn’t wage even under Reagan: the fight to repeal a major new entitlement program. That struggle will be the test of conservatism’s resilience, and of its seriousness.

Charles Kesler is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.