With the primary season complete, the terms of battle are set — for the general election and for the next era in American politics.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was said to constitute the next great wave of progressivism after FDR and LBJ. But a massive electoral backlash is brewing against his policies, all his stimuli have manifestly failed, and his party is increasingly in intellectual and political disarray (witness its agony on extending the Bush tax cuts). Obama may only have set the table for the third wave of conservative reform, the first instituted by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the second (and less consequential) by Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.
Who gets their next wave, and makes it endure, is the stakes in this election and beyond. In this monumental contest, a revitalized limited-government conservatism that says — that insists — “enough” is arrayed against a progressivism that says, in the title of William Voegeli’s compelling book on the ever-voracious welfare state, “never enough.”
Obama Democrats have created facts on the ground over the last two years that will take long work to reverse, most significantly the health-care law. But everything that has happened since its passage has served to make its repeal more likely rather than less — it has remained unpopular; practically every week has brought news of another unintended consequence or noxious, previously un-noticed provision; and Democrats are running from it, in a favorite phrase of Haley Barbour’s, “like scalded dogs.”
More important, the Republican party has remained resolute in opposition and will be even more so after November. A great purifying fire raced through the Republican party during the primaries. While conservatives might disagree with one another over this or that tactical judgment–notably the one involved in last week’s Delaware primary–all of us should cheer this season’s renewed vigor. In different context, Andrew Mellon famously spoke of “purging the rottenness.” That’s what the primaries have done, exposing and expunging those Republicans who have no greater commitment than to their (rather undistinguished) careers.
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, now waging a write-in campaign, is the latest example. She began her Senate career on the strength of an unseemly act of nepotism (appointed by dear old dad) and will end it in an unseemly act of unprincipled desperation. Trading Murkowski, Arlen Specter, and Charlie Crist — all of whom lacked a minimal loyalty to party — for Joe Miller, Pat Toomey, and Marco Rubio will be a vast upgrade in talent, idealism, and persuasive power for Senate Republicans.
For years, conservatives have plaintively remarked, “if only we had another Reagan . . . .” It was nostalgia as an excuse for not grappling with contemporary political circumstances. Not anymore. Conservatives have literally taken to the streets in a tea-party movement that doesn’t just reflect the political moment but largely defines it. If Democrats were foolhardy to take the 2008 election as a mandate for everything their hearts have ever desired, they were near-suicidal to persist in their course in the face of the tea-party protests of August 2009.
We can’t be sure exactly what the political landscape will look like after November, except that it will have shifted to the right. The stage will then be set for the fight for the presidency in 2012, which will be enormously consequential. In 2013, either President Obama consolidates his progressive achievements and builds on them in a way that irrevocably changes the country, or a conservative begins to return the country to its foundations. We are not even at the end of the beginning of this monumental contest, but win it, we must.