By Jesse Taylor
Saturday, November 8, 2008 16:37 EDT
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Back during my original run on Pandagon, I made the comment that conservatism cannot fail – conservatism can only be failed.

There’s a second part to that formulation, though. Conservatism, in addition to being a fundamentally perfect doctrine for the American people, is also the doctrine that the American people are always in search of, no matter the times, circumstances, or even the actual choices they make. As Think Progress shows, conservatives can contend both that Obama was a far-left candidate with no mandate for his plans, but that he was also a conservative center-right candidate who won overwhelming mandates for a moderate version of the right’s agenda. It doesn’t really matter what Americans vote for, because they’re always voting for the same thing, even if they vote for an entirely different candidate promising entirely different things.

The real kicker, though, comes from Dick Armey, via RedState:

The modern Republican Party has risen above its insecurities to achieve political success. Ronald Reagan, for example, held an unshakably positive vision of American capitalism. He didn’t feel a need to qualify the meaning of his conservatism. He understood that big government was cruel and uncaring of individual aspirations. Small government conservatism was, by definition, compassionate — offering every American a way up to self-determination and economic prosperity.

Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 because voters no longer saw Republicans as the party of limited government. They have since rejected virtually every opportunity to recapture this identity. But their failure to do so must not be misconstrued as a rejection of principles of individual liberty by the American people. The evidence suggests we are still a nation of pocketbook conservatives most happy when government has enough respect to leave us alone and to mind its own business. The worrisome question is whether either political party understands this.

I just want to understand this. The nation has reached an overarching consensus concerning the shape and nature of government, reached in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and reinforced by his reelection in 1984. Since then, the nation has elected his Vice President once and that man’s son twice to the office of the presidency, and has also twice elected a Democratic president who raised taxes and stopped running Reaganite deficits and just this week another Democratic president who was accused of being a socialist non-stop for three straight weeks. The two Republicans, by the end of their terms, were also excoriated for betraying conservative principles – meaning that in the 24 years since Reagan won his last election, Americans have failed to vote for conservatives six straight times. It also means that Republicans have failed to produce conservative candidates six straight times, despite not only being the conservative party, but going through year after year after year of wailing and gnashing about the lack of conservative leaders.

Why does this happen? Why, if the GOP found the successful political and policy mix in 1980, have they failed time and time again to produce a single conservative candidate despite having dozens of governors, hundreds of Representatives and Senators and any number of conservative activists, all of whom are intelligent enough to read these post-mortems, study Reagan’s success and mimic them? On the one hand, you could argue that Reagan-style conservatism is harder to practice than it is to promote, and that the challenge of governing in such a way will invariably fall to outside pressures. The problem with this, though, is that most politicians are willing to jump through any number of hoops and make any number of concessions to the blowing of the political winds. If Reagan’s conservatism always wins, and is what the public always demands, it seems like a job which depends on retaining power would invariably produce a stream of conservatives with an undeniable lock on the reigns of power.

Given that this doesn’t happen, we’re left to understand why. The American public could be too stupid to understand the conservatism that it so enjoys is available in those candidates who present it to them; the crusty, awkward, stumbling freakshows who’ve made up the post-Reagan coalition of Republican candidates just haven’t been able to make the connection to the American people necessary. If this is the case, though, the message simply can’t be that strong – if conservatism requires Reagan’s prodigious political talents to win and wield power, it doesn’t really make sense that the American populace is searching for his ideological proclivities in all of its leaders.

It could also be that the people promoting the American consensus on conservatism are delusional, whiny losers who can’t accept the fact that the American people want different things at different times and that 1981-1989 is not when St. Ronnie’s perfection determined the end of the evolution of American political preferences.

The key problem with the conservative movement isn’t simply their adherence to a dysfunctional and dated ideology, it’s the idea that the entirety of political discourse revolves around them and their beliefs. No nation of 300 million people (and growing) stays utterly static in its response to changing economic, social and foreign policy circumstances over the course of two and a half decades – it just doesn’t happen. The fact that America keeps electing drastically different politicians to the office of the Presidency, keeps switching partisan control of its legislatures and governorships, and in general doesn’t really seem to be searching out another Reagan should, theoretically, be indicative of the fact that maybe conservatism isn’t the chosen solution to all of life’s problems.

For all the surely hilarious internecine fights that are sure to break out over the next few years, eventually this group of political reprobates needs to have a cake-smeared slapfight about maybe believing something outside of their dogeared copies of Conscience of a Conservative. If conservatism stopped responding to outside stimuli in the 1980s, most people would declare it, well, dead.

Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor is an attorney and blogger from the great state of Ohio. He founded Pandagon in July, 2002, and has also served on the campaign and in the administration of former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. He focuses on politics, race, law and pop culture, as well as the odd personal digression when the mood strikes.
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