Lost Horizons

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I had a succession of meals last week with smart conservative friends, and I found them all relatively sanguine about the defeat that's almost certainly about to be inflicted on the American Right. Each of them, in different ways, express a mix of enthusiasm for the "whither conservatism" battles ahead and relief at the prospect of finally closing the books on the Bush years. This has been an exhausting Presidency for conservatives as well as liberals, and for many people on the Right the prospect of being out of power has obvious upsides: No longer will every foul-up and blunder in Washington be treated as an indictment of Conservatism with a capital C; no longer will right-wingers feel obliged to carry water, whether in small or large amounts, for a government that's widely perceived as a failure; and no longer will the Right have the dead weight of an unpopular president dragging it down and down and down. Defeat will be depressing, of course - none of my friends were Obamacons by any stretch - but it could be liberating as well.

This was how I expected to feel about a McCain defeat, too, and I've been trying to figure out why I don't - why I feel instead so grouchy and embittered (clinging to my guns and my religion, and all that), and more dispirited than liberated. I didn't have particularly high hopes for a McCain-led ticket in the first place: I never went in for the Mac-worship many journalists have practiced over the years, and part of me was dreading having to spend four years trying to explain that yes, I want a reformed conservatism, but no, I don't like the kind of reform-ish quasi-conservatism that the McCain Administration is advancing. And then there were all the other reasons to think that a GOP defeat might not be so bad: You can't win every election; it's hard for a political party to change its ways without the clarifying effects of a devastating defeat; Obama's a smart guy who'll probably make at least some policy choices I support; the election of a black President will be a great day for America; etc.

And yet here I am, sour and world-weary. Part of it, I'm sure, has to do with the pace and rhythms of blogging, which even at my extremely sedate clip is wearing after a while: I feel like I've gone round and round on the same points and controversies for an eternity already, and the prospect of going round and round for years to come ... well, let's just say I'm thinking of mainly writing about the movies for the next decade or so. And part of it probably has to do with the madness that afflicts anyone who writes a book offering advice to politicians. Every pundit labors under the delusion that if only his favored candidates would listen to him, they'd win every election and get every policy decision right - and this goes double, if my own experience is any guide, for pundits who write books that come out in election years. I've been more frustrated with the McCain campaign than with any previous ticket, I think, in part because some delusional part of my subconscious doesn't understand why they can't just let me take over their campaign and set things right. After all, I wrote a book! Come on, people!

And then, of course, there's the whole Sarah Palin business, where a politician I liked and touted from afar ended up as a hate figure to many Americans, a late-night punchline to many more, a deranging influence on a number of writers and the locus for an incredibly wearying internecine feud among right-wing pundits. (Which is to say, maybe it's a good thing the McCain campaign didn't listen to my other suggestions ...)

But I think the deeper reason for my political gloom has to do with something that Jonah Goldberg raised in our bloggingheads chat about conservatism - namely, the sense that the era now passing represented a great opportunity to put into practice the sort of center-right politics that I'd like to see from the Republican Party, and that by failing the way it did the Bush Administration may have cut the ground out from under my own ideas before I'd even figured out exactly what they were.  As I said to Jonah. I have all sorts of disagreements with the specific ways President Bush attempted to renovate the GOP, on the level of policy and philosophy alike. But the fact remains that the renovation Bush attempted was an effort to respond to some of the political, social and economc trends that Reihan and I discuss in Grand New Party - and those of us who want a reformed conservatism have to recognize Bush's attempt, and reckon with his failure.

This is by no means a new insight, but it's one that's been brought home to me by the looming end of the Bush Era and the struggles of the McCain campaign. Conservatism in the United States faces a series of extremely knotty problems at the moment. How do you restrain the welfare state at a time when the entitlements we have are broadly popular, and yet their design puts them on a glide path to insolvency? How do you respond to the socioeconomic trends - wage stagnation, social immobility, rising health care costs, family breakdown, and so forth - that are slowly undermining support for the Reaganite model of low-tax capitalism? How do you sell socially-conservative ideas to a moderate middle that often perceives social conservatism as intolerant? How do you transform an increasingly white party with a history of benefiting from racially-charged issues into a party that can win majorities in an increasingly multiracial America?  etc.

Watching the McCain campaign, you'd barely even know that these problems exist, let alone that conservatives have any idea what to do about them. But there were people in the Bush Administration who did understand the situation facing the Right, and set out to wrestle with these challenges - and as a result, George W. Bush had a real chance (especially given the political capital he enjoyed after 9/11) to establish a model for center-right governance in the post-Reagan era. That he failed is by no means the greatest tragedy of the last eight years, but it is a tragedy nonetheless - for conservatives, and for the country.

I'm not counseling despair here: There were people in 1976 who thought Richard Nixon had irrevocably squandered the chance to build a new right-of-center majority, and looked how that turned out. But for now, as America goes to the polls, I find myself stuck thinking about the lost opportunities of the last eight years, and the possibility that they may not come round again.

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

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