Commentary Magazine


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Looking Ahead

Ann Althouse recalls the second presidential debate:

McCain never presented the conservative alternative to Obama. He never even called himself a conservative last night. He was wandering all over that red carpet, microphone in hand, and I have the feeling, in retrospect, that he was truly bewildered, mouthing old phrases, trying to slip by. But one old phrase that was missing was “I’m a proud conservative.” Remember when he used to say that?…

McCain has lost definition. He’s stumbling along to the finish line, hoping to achieve his lifelong ambition, to seize the crown at last. But why? To show he can get along with Democrats? I worry about what awful innovations the new President will concoct in league with the Democratic Congress, but at this point, I’m more worried about McCain than Obama.

Conservatives will argue over McCain’s main failings. Was he too conservative? Not conservative enough?  But Althouse, I think, nails it: he wasn’t really anything. He had an opportunity to piece together a center-right message. But instead it came out as an incoherent mishmash defined by what he was against (e.g. socialism, Obama, Wall Street greed).

Conservative reformers pleaded with the McCain camp to formulate a reform agenda. For reasons that are not clear, McCain and his crew were unwilling or unable to do that. Perhaps they never understood that the main task of a presidential campaign is to create an overarching vision of where you would like to take the country.

As for the future, Republicans would do well to look forward and not back. There is much to be said for conservative critics who argue that the singular focus on low taxes and fiscal frugality isn’t sufficient as a national platform. In an era in which 40% of voters don’t pay taxes, that approach certainly seems irrelevant.

So rather than retreating to “core principles,” conservatives would do well to think big, reach out to successful reformers in office, and eschew the defensive, paranoid style of political combat that marked too much of the last few political cycles. Yes, the media is biased, but what of it? I don’t recall the press being any more fair when Ronald Reagan won twice.

Time, then, for Republicans to get out of their bunkers. The election of 2008 provides ample proof, if any was needed, that big ideas and great messengers still matter. Republicans should get some of both.