Conservatives suffered a terrible defeat last night, and there is no point pretending otherwise. President Obama won with an improving but still weak economy, and while running a campaign that was quite liberal by historical standards. His plan for the economy was almost entirely built on government-directed investment and government-based employment, and he supported abortion more strongly than any previous Democratic presidential candidate had. The Senate saw at least one loss, even in a cycle with far more liberal than conservative seats. The House was the only bright spot, and that only because of a favorable redistricting.
Blame for this debacle is widely shared. Mitt Romney made many mistakes in this campaign. Yet with the exception of his failure to press the case against Obamacare — a failure partly explained but not excused by his own record on health care — those mistakes reflected party-wide decisions. The party hasn’t kept up with the political technologies Democrats are using. More important, Republicans from the top to the bottom of the ticket did little to make the case that conservative policies would make the broad mass of the public better off. It wasn’t a theme of the convention in Tampa, for example, or a consistent theme in Republican ads.
Most of the post-election discussion, we can predict, will dwell on the predictable demographic divides of sex, race, and age. Most of this conversation will be unproductive. Until conservatives devise a domestic agenda, and a way to sell it, that links small-government principles to attractive results, they are going to have a hard time improving their standing with women, Latinos, white men, or young people. And conservatives would be deeply unwise to count on the mere availability of charismatic young conservative officials to make up for that problem.
Social conservatives usually get unfairly blamed for Republican electoral defeats. There is certainly no reason for Republicans to stop defending the right to life, and little prospect that they will. Too many social conservatives have, however, embraced a self-defeating approach to politics — falling, to take a painful example, for Todd Akin’s line that his withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race would be a defeat for their causes. It would have been an advance. And while we continue to believe same-sex marriage is a grave mistake, calls for a constitutional amendment against it are now quixotic.
Conservatives are going to have to do all of their rethinking under pressure, because liberalism will not rest. If the president offers a serious reform of entitlements, or some other worthwhile policy, conservatives should be willing to bargain with him. If he continues on the path of his first term — and why would he not, after this election? — we should feel duty-bound to oppose him. We will have to do it more effectively, while articulating better alternatives, than we have so far.