Michael Barone: The Future of Conservatism

Roundup: Media's Take

The following roundtable discussion about the direction of the conservative movement took place on Saturday, November 15, during the 2008 Restoration Weekend, the annual event hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. -- The Editors.

Larry Greenfield: Good morning. Welcome to our Panel on the Future of American conservatism. The Democratic Party has a game plan, an educational system that bullies conservatives and indoctrinates students to liberalism; media bias to paint conservative thought as out of the mainstream, especially on cultural issues; a revived religious Left that preaches text and tradition, not with multiple voices, but singularly from the liberal perspective; amnesty and open borders to invite in new political voters; a welfare system and dependency class to grow votes for more and more government handouts and entitlements; voting and registration fraud, including voting now by felons, ex-felons, and gerrymandered districts; law by judicial fiat; the plaintiffs bar; and unions at the government teat. Yes, the Democratic Party has a plan.

What do we as conservatives have? We have a better idea: liberty, opportunity, prosperity, security, and freedom.

Thank you, David Horowitz' Freedom Center and its incredible staff, for bringing us all together.

In my own lecturing and soon my own writing, I will lay out a conservative philosophy that, in participation with so many others, answers some basic questions. To set up the panel, I'm just going to answer questions, not the philosophy.

How do we recapture our majority and compete with that Democratic Party and all of its alliances program and master plan? How do we reach out to new voters and demographics that we are not yet reaching? How do we rebrand ourselves?

Second, how will conservatism serve America?

And, last, what is the structure of technology reaching out to youth voters and other demographics. What is the substance? What are our philosophical and policy ideas? And what is the tone? What level of conversation and charisma can we bring to compete?

To answer and address and investigate all of these questions about tone, structure, substance, philosophy, policy, what is the future of the conservative movement, we put together an all-star panel.

First up is my friend, your friend, America's leading thinker about the electorate. Michael Barone.

Michael Barone: I've been asked to talk about election data. What are the voters saying to us? And I'm tempted to quote the words of the late Morris Udall of Arizona, who finished second in a whole series of Democratic primaries in the 1976 election, and in one of the later primaries he got up hypocritically before the audience on election night, and he said, "The voters have spoken, the bastards."

In any case, let me make a couple of points here. First of all, this was a more volatile electorate than we've had in the past. Opinion changed more sharply in response to issues, in response to unforeseen events, in response to the things that candidates did.

And it's a period, between 1995 and '05, we had a period of what I call "trench warfare politics," where political behavior was very closely linked to people's moral values, and things didn't change much. The numbers were about the same in election after election because of the nexus between moral values and the vote. That changed with Hurricane Katrina, the prolonged struggle in Iraq, the performance of the Congressional Republicans, the "bridge to nowhere," Mark Foley, etc. That nexus for many voters, particularly those who had been voting Republican, snapped and we became in a period of what I called "open field politics," a period where there's a lot of volatility.

The Democrats have mostly done better in this period than the Republicans, but I would maintain that there's a wide range of possibilities and outcomes, and we could see it to some extent this year. I mean neither of the two parties nominated a candidate the way that they have in every contest since 1972 through 2004, since the emergence of the primaries, where the candidate that sweeps the primaries wins. That didn't work, and the Republican Party where John McCain got narrow pluralities but through winner-take-all rules got the majority of delegates. It didn't work in the Democratic Party, where Hillary Clinton actually won more votes and more delegates in primaries than Barack Obama did, but since her campaign somehow forgot to compete in the caucuses, she lost.

We saw shifts of opinion, three of them really favoring Republicans in the course of the campaign: the prolonged Democratic nomination fight, which set off a sort of tribal warfare in the Democratic Party; and Obama did not maximize the potential Democratic vote among some groups that didn't vote against him in the primaries, including downscale elderly and Appalachian voters.

The public appreciation, finally, of the success of the Iraq surge changed things. That changed the standing on Iraq suddenly, not nearly as negative an issue for Republicans. There was $4 a gallon gas, which basically converted people from preserve the pristine environment to nuke the caribou. (There are 377,000 caribou in Alaska, and when the environmentalists realized the global warming implications of the methane emissions from 377,000 animals perhaps they'll change their view.) And then we had the financial crisis in which McCain seemed to be behaving impulsively and ineffectively, Obama seemed to be behaving calmly. That really changed attitudes. On September 18th the lines crossed on the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls. Obama overtook McCain, who had been ahead for two weeks, and it changes.

That’s one point: in a volatile situation votes can change in response to events.

The second point is Obama’s coalitions. Interestingly, this is a top and bottom coalition. Obama wins voters under $50,000 and over $200,000. He wins non-high school grads and people with post graduate degrees. He loses everybody in between.

That's a coalition that's got a certain amount of inherent instability into it. We heard the Democrats talking a lot about how they're going to win the white working class. They actually didn't do so well with that class.

But the one I really want to emphasize is the young, in particular because the Freedom Center has directed a lot of its activities in this direction. Young voters, 30-and-under voted 66% to 32% for Barack Obama. Now, there wasn't it seems as huge an increase in young voting as may have been expected.

I think it was confined in large parts to university towns and counties that have major universities – you see the increased vote for Obama, as opposed to previous Democrats in affluent suburban areas.

People 30-and-over voted for Obama by a margin of 50-to-49. Retrospectively, I suggest that the McCain campaign's winning strategy would have been to pass a constitutional amendment raising the voting age to 35.

Now, those figures I think should not be regarded as necessarily stable. Obama could improve on them, but he also faces very high expectations. As he said on June 3rd when he clinched the last Democratic primary, "This is the moment when the planet begins to heal and the seas stop rising."

Now, earlier successful politicians never made such promises, like King Canute, and actually refrained from talking about stopping the seas from rising. Obama has promised a lot, and I think it's not clear that he's going to be able to succeed in this. He has talked about how he's going to produce great change, and yet as we see the kind of people he is bringing to Washington, we see them trooping in there, veterans of the Clinton administration, and so forth.

And that leads me to my third point: how conservatives can win over the young and still maintain the coalition they had.

McCain after all did get 46% of the vote. This is not a total collapse. There are still a lot of voters that are anchored to either of the two parties by their moral values, although the nexus was broken for many.

And the problem that the conservative coalition faces is in one way you can see from two exit poll numbers. White evangelical Protestants continue to be very heavily Republican. McCain got 74% of their votes, that's down from 79%, but the religious Left talked about much by Jim Wallace and other Democrats, is still a minor factor in the electorate. Any successful Republican or conservative coalition needs to have voters like that as a part.

The other is what is the one demographic group in which McCain did better than Bush in '04? Gays and lesbians, up from 24% to 27%, a contrary trend. Not a big difference, not a huge demographic – they’re only 4% of the electorate – but it's an interesting number.

And it gets me to my final point, which is how do you relate to these younger voters. And I think the answer is in the word "choices." I mean this is a generation, as compared to when I was, you know, if you go back to the 1950s and '60s and that sort of conformist society that was a top-down society.

If you wanted to join the Elvis Presley fan club you had to sign-up with the official fan club, and you get their materials, and you could post them, you know, scotch tape them on your bedroom wall and so forth. If you listened to the music, you listen to the Top 40, and if a song wasn't on the top 40 you'd never hear it.

This is a different generation. As Morley Winograd and Michael Heiss, two Democrats, make the point in their book Millennial Makeover, it's a generation that's open to big government programs, but it's also a generation that wants choices. They've got their own MySpace page. They don't send into the centralized fan club to get their materials; they construct their own website. They don't just listen to the Top 40, they've got their mix of music varieties on their own iPods.

These are people that have choices, and I think that there's a tension between this desire for choices and some of the things that we've seen rolling out from the Obama campaign and transition team. We've got them, you know, they're promising to increase taxes which reduces your choices of what to do with your money. They're talking about a national health care, pushing towards a single national health insurance scheme, which reduces choices.

The Democrats have promised to put in a card check bill which will abolish secret ballots in elections. That's an 80% unpopular bill. It has gotten very little air. Mainstream media won't talk about it because it doesn't want to hurt Democrats. But that is something that very much goes against the spirit of this younger generation of voters.

You've got the General Motors bailout. Some on the panel may disagree, but it seems to me, and I've got an article this morning in Real Clear Politics on the topic, that he bailout of the big three automakers is not about creating a future; it's about freezing in place the past. Aside from all the policy arguments on it and so forth, it's really out of line with what I think that younger voters want.

Now, I hear some conservatives say, "We just have to shout louder our principles, and summon the memory of Ronald Reagan." I think that's insufficient. I think conservatives have to figure out how to frame their views on cultural issues, economic issues, and defense issues as a matter of choices. And giving Americans choices so that they can together build the kind of country they want, rather than having a one-size-fits-all model imposed from top to bottom.

Thank you....

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More Comments:

Eugene Barufkin - 12/14/2008

The USA is not "the" country with the most freedoms in the world.

Most countries with a Parliamentary Governing body are a lot better off than we. They don't have the cumbersome system of impeachment or waiting four years to get rid of a poor leader. This means they have at least one freedom we don't have.

How do the conservatives defend our huge debt and the growing need for additional money for social programs, because of the continuing loss of purchasing power of the lower 75%?

Because of this fact, more people, every day need government help with basic living needs. The sicker the population becomes and less educated, the less competitive the USA is.

Please explain how a single working mother, if lucky to be working, earning a lucky $10/hr, can afford day care & medical care, rent, food & transportation?

The area conservatives fail with the highest score, is the design of a system for every American to have an intelligent healthy life. Profits and greed always seem to have the highest priority.

Happy holidays David,
Eugene B