Be Careful What You Wish For

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Larison responds to my post on realignment, contingency, and why conservatives shouldn't necessary welcome the wilderness:

After the last few electoral cycles, and in the face of depleted American power and a remarkable financial shock that remind us how transitory worldly glory is, I turn more and more to the basic lesson of Geoffrey Parker's Success Is Never Final ... The lesson of the book, as the title suggests, is that victories are ephemeral and the seeds of later defeat are being sown in the midst of what everyone regards as progress and success.   

... this basic lesson seems to get away from people, especially in election years.  As November approaches, memories seem to get very short. Where just a few years before there was loose talk of thirty-year dominance of the Presidency on the model of the early 20th century GOP, there is now the fear of a long sojourn out of power. To avoid this, disaffected conservatives are supposed to "come home," but in November just as in 2006 it will not matter whether McCain succeeds in retaining the GOP core ...There may be a few more defections from the GOP on the right this year, but not that many. What seems certain is that, except for a shrinking, irreducible core of right-leaning independents, everyone who is not a registered Republican will be backing any candidate that is not McCain.

... What conservatives who want to remain politically engaged with the party that has failed them time after time (the non-Larisonians, if you like) need to do is make whatever efforts they can to limit losses in Congressional elections this year.  Strategists need to assume a McCain defeat, which seems increasingly likely, and get into a position that will make the 2010 midterms somewhat competitive. Objective economic conditions seem likely to worsen in the coming year, and there is every reason to think that unified Democratic government will overreach as unified governments tend to do. If McCain were somehow to prevail on 4 November, the calamity that would befall the Congressional GOP in 2010 would great and would help to erase all political gains of the previous sixteen years. Those conservatives who do not want to be consigned to the wilderness for the next decade or two need to think about the long-term consequences of a McCain victory, which would be disastrous for conservatives both in policy and political terms in the next several electoral cycles.

It's true that the election won't be won for McCain by conservatives who "come home" and turn out in '04-style numbers for him; it's even more true that it won't be won for him by conservative writers who hold their noses and vote for him. (In this sense, the question of how conservatives should regard the prospect of a McCain defeat is even more academic, at this point, than the question of what tactics the McCain campaign should pursue.) That being said, I would only point out that while success is never final, some successes are more final than others. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 gave birth to an administrative state that has never been rolled back, and seems unlikely be rolled back in my lifetime. So that was a pretty final victory, as political victories go. Or again, while Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 had less enduring consequences than FDR's, at the very least it put its stamp on thirty years of American history in a way that, say, the election of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush did not. And the convergence of an economic crisis and complete Democratic control of Washington should alarm even those conservatives eager to wash their hands of the GOP. The best reason for even the most disaffected right-winger to root for a McCain victory is simple: To the extent that much of the progressive agenda is a program in search of a crisis to justify its implementation, an election that delivers a liberal candidate who's adored by the media to White House, gives him huge majorities in both houses of Congress, and presents him with a worldwide state of emergency in which to govern, has the potential to be not just another loss for conservatives, but a once-in-a-generation defeat.

Now it's possible, as Larison suggests, that a McCain victory would just set the stage for even more devastating defeats in 2010 and 2012. But this is where contingency comes in: We know so much more about what the political and economic landscape will look like if Obama is elected than we do about the hypothetical landscape of '10 or '12 that worrying about a hypothetical Hillary or Obama landslide four years hence when we're faced with the possibility of a real landslide in three weeks feels, well, farsighted to a fault. (Also, conservatives should prefer Hillary Clinton in charge of a Democratic supermajority to Barack Obama in a similar position, I think.) And while it would be nice, as Daniel suggests, to decouple the fortunes of the House and Senate GOP from the fortunes of the McCain campaign, I don't think that's going to happen: This is a national election, and I suspect that House and Senate candidates will only rise in the polls if the national ticket is rising in the polls. Which means that even if you think he's already beaten, if you're a conservative you should still root for him to close the gap, because the GOP's ability to be a brake on the liberal majority in the House and Senate may depend on the size of Obama's win, and the coattails that come with it. (Which is part of why I find the Ayersing so frustrating: I suspect that the strategy won't just fail to help McCain, but will actually further weaken the GOP in down-ballot races, by fueling the perception that the party's deeply out of touch.)

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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