Where Conservatives Failed

“The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’

“‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued.”—Ron Suskind on the Bush Presidency, 2004

The last three decades have been defined by Republican politics and conservative philosophy.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, conservatives have set the agenda with their emphasis on smaller government, lower taxes, light regulation, and a muscular foreign policy.

Even Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have had to bend to conservative ideology and well-organized Republican  initiatives. “The era of big government is over,” President Clinton famously declared in 1996. And, stung by a rout in the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama broke his campaign pledge and extended all the Bush tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans, for two years.

President Reagan defined the new conservative era the way Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered a new liberal era with the New Deal. The US economy and markets boomed, the Soviet empire collapsed under intense pressure, and President Reagan signed an extraordinary nuclear-arms-reduction treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. The culture veered right, too, with family and religious values taking center stage.

And yet, 30 years later, the Reagan legacy is in trouble. Most of its key ideas were undone in the disastrous  presidency of George W. Bush.

Small government? President Bush nearly doubled the national debt to almost $10 trillion, and went from a small budget surplus to a $1.5-trillion annual deficit when he left office, through big spending , two wars, and a financial crisis .

Supply-side economics? The two huge tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 had no discernible impact on economic growth or job creation, while boosting the deficit dramatically.

Muscular foreign policy?  The Iraq war was a disaster, and a huge blow to American prestige, even though the face-saving 2007 surge prevented a humiliating defeat.

And just as FDR’s winning Democratic coalition of unions, minorities, immigrants, and Southern segregationists eventually came undone, the Reagan coalition appears to be crumbling, too. Neocons, supply siders, libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and Reagan democrats seem increasingly at loggerheads.

Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists (the so-called “social conservatives” or “values voters”) have the ultimate  veto power in the party. With a disproportionate influence on the nominating process, they increase the chances that an unelectable purist  will become the Republican nominee for president next year.

Which brings us to the Tea Party. The grassroots movement has done a service by bringing the issue of the deficit front and center, but its influence will ultimately be judged to be negative if its members keep insisting on no compromise with Democrats on anything.  Independents like the Tea Party’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism, but find its extremism distasteful.

Conservatism spearheaded a big turnaround that lifted the US from the morass of the 1970s. It helped reinvigorate the economy and won the Cold War against Communism, a monumental achievement.

But Republicans’ insistence on tax cuts as the solution to every problem, their allergy to any kind of sensible regulation, their belief that any government program that helps ordinary people is “socialism,”  and their failure to face the reality of limited American power in a multipolar world  has made them unable to lead this country effectively in the 21st century.

Would Republicans really rather be “right” than president?  Unless they keep their good ideas, dump their bad ones, and be willing to compromise, they may get their wish.

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