Commentary Magazine


Making Conservatism Seem Fresh Again

Obama and his team rode into office banking on the recession to help shift the country leftward. The private sector would be discredited, they figured. The public would turn to government. And they and their hyper-liberal agenda would be the beneficiaries. But they missed the mark on two counts.

First, the essential center-right political orientation of Americans was not altered by the downturn. Voters were in fact wary after eight years of Republican rule and some significant mismanagement. They might have been prepared for some corrective regulatory action, but they hadn’t given up on the free market or their suspicion of big government, and candidate Obama was more than anxious to assure them that he, too, was a fan of the private sector and had no desire to reorient the relationship between the private and public sectors. Had Obama not appealed to that political sentiment throughout the campaign (going line by line through the budget, for example) and not vigorously disputed critics who spied him as a extreme liberal, it is unclear whether he would have won. The election would certainly have been closer had he revealed just how radical a domestic agenda he was considering.

Second, if you’re going to push big government, you’d better be prepared to show that you are up for the task. As Ross Douthat writes:

Recessions, it seems, only benefit liberals when an activist government is perceived to have answers to the crisis. When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don’t seem to be working — or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man — then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets.

All the Obami have to show for their hopey/changey revolution is a failed stimulus plan and a load of debt. It inspires only queasiness, not faith in empowering government to do more and more. Independents are moving rightward, concerned about massive spending and debt. The signature piece of legislation, a takeover of health care, is now in doubt and will pass only if lawmakers ignore public opinion.

The result of the Obami’s misreading of the public and gross underperformance has been a revitalization of their opponents and a renewed interest in a message of fiscal conservatism. The Obami may yet recalibrate their vision or improve their execution. But if they don’t do both, the Obama era may ironically mark the rebirth of a conservative agenda that had grown increasingly stale and muddled. There is, after all, nothing like liberal excess to make low taxes, spending restraint, and regulatory moderation seem like the basis for a refreshing new agenda.

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