Victor Davis Hanson: What Went Wrong?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Conservatives have already in the three weeks after the election come up with three competing explanations — and remedies — for their congressional defeats and the victory of the relatively unknown Barack Obama.

Post-election voting patterns and statistical data can be interpreted in various ways to support any of the following three exegeses, which I understand as being roughly the following:

It was a sort of fluke. Party faithful will shrug that almost everything conspired this year against the conservative brand: two wars; the sinking economy; eight years of presidential incumbency; a biased, unethical media; Bush’s low ratings; the absence of an incumbent president or VP candidate on the ticket; more exposed Republican congressional seats than Democratic ones; a charismatic path-breaking opposition candidate, etc. The stars were wrong, rather than the ideas.

So, the theory goes, just make McCain appear a little younger, Obama sound a little bit more like John Kerry, and take away the mid-September financial meltdown, and — presto! — a Republican would now be in the White House.

Remedy? Not much other than fielding younger, more charismatic candidates. The failure was people, not ideas, and best symbolized by the damage done by the creepy Jack Abramoff, Larry Craig, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, or Ted Stevens whose ethical lapses became the Republican bumper-sticker.

Even had an ethical but colorless Bob Dole or Gerry Ford run in 1980 on Reagan’s identical platform, he would have most likely lost to Carter. So it’s the candidate, stupid.

In this way of thinking, someone like Jindal, Palin, and other fresh new faces will save the party in 2012, especially as hope and change soon proves neither hopeful nor different. Democrats, after all, just replaced their 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee with equally entrenched 84-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye; and are now talking about re-empowering the big unions that helped ruin Detroit, are hiring all the Clinton retreads for a second try in the Obama administration, and seem to want to use the ancient Freddie/Fannie/postal service model to expand the government.

It was too narrow a base, too exclusionary a message. This second theory — favored by New York and D.C. columnists, Schwarzenegger Republicans, and “helpful” Democrats of the “we miss the old good McCain of 2000” school — posits that all these new young, minority, and independent voters can’t break through the anti–gay marriage, anti–illegal immigration, anti–affirmative action, anti-abortion firewall, and so are diverted from the low-taxes, small-government, and strong–national defense message that they otherwise might welcome.

Remedy? Junk the social agenda. Become more libertarian. Try to make existing Great Society programs run more efficiently, rather than shrilly barking at what you couldn’t cut, even if you wanted to. Be a little more neo-isolationist abroad, a little more laid back at home. Turn off talk radio, and read more of the Wall Street Journal.

It was the namby-pamby, con-lite sell-out that did us in. In this view, conservatives and evangelicals didn’t turn out as in the past, because the ticket and its short coat-tails abandoned a conservative message. Take away Bush’s mega-deficits, and conservatives could have run on fiscal sanity. Why were right-wingers boasting about federal bailouts? Why print more money on top of the $10-trillion-and-rising national debt? No drilling in ANWR? Close down Gitmo? No talk about creepy Islamic terrorists? No more “personal responsibility” lectures about drugs, alcohol, illegitimacy, crime, and drop-out rates? Didn’t the party see that gay marriage lost everywhere, and with help from minorities as well?

Remedy? Run as a true conservative, energize the base, and out-debate and outthink your liberal opponents.

I supposed one could cop out, and claim that there is truth in all three explanations. But my sense is that most people — who, after all, get a job, eventually buy a house and have to maintain it, have children, and respect the traditions of their families’ past — end up by necessity more conservative than liberal. The challenge is not to water down the conservative message, but to beef it up, even while making it more persuasive to those who are skeptical....
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Douglas Hainline - 11/28/2008

Has anyone done, or is anyone planning on doing, some in-depth analysis of the American electorate as it actually is? I would be interested in knowing in some detail what the 20% of the population who call themselves "liberal", and the 30% who call themselves "conservative", really believe, or claim to believe. And that goes double for the 50% who say they are neither.