EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the March 27, 2006, issue of National Review.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, torrents of analysis have predicted that the conservative movement was about to come unglued. Our defining rationale — anti-Communism — had vanished, and without that stanchion securely planted in terra firma the various members of the coalition would fly off in different directions, libertarians decamping for their never land, evangelicals for theirs. But the truth is that such predictions predate the end of the Cold War by a long shot. Robert Nisbet and others argued (often in these pages) that the Reagan coalition was intellectually untenable and could never last.
This perennial observation has, of late, dovetailed nicely with more conventional political punditry. Bush is a lame duck and, more important, he is very unpopular — and so Congress is running away from him on everything from port security to the budget. Free-market conservatives are feeling their oats these days, symbolized by Bruce Bartlett’s broadside against Bush as an “impostor” in his book of that name. Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has an indictment of the GOP as crapulent and corrupt coming out this spring. George Will, who has been quite tart toward Bush for a while, grew downright testy over the Harriet Miers nomination (“for this we need a conservative president?”).
Bush’s plight is what social scientists might call an “over-determined” event. In other words, all sorts of things were militating toward a certain amount of exhaustion with Bush. While everyone focused on the anti-Bush motivations behind the Democrats’ selecting their worst presidential nominee since Michael Dukakis, few appreciated how much of Bush’s support in 2004 was attributable to anti-Kerry views. The ongoing slog in Iraq, Bush’s inability to get credit for a good economy, and his missteps on Miers, Katrina, and Dubai made some buyer’s remorse almost inevitable.
But in the background there was an even larger problem: compassionate conservatism.
As countless writers have noted in National Review over the last five years, most conservatives never really understood what compassionate conservatism was, beyond a convenient marketing slogan to attract swing voters. The reality — as even some members of the Bush team will sheepishly concede — is that there was nothing behind the curtain. . . .
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