Whither conservatism?

Ross ponders the future of conservatism and comes away depressed:

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.

A lot of my liberal friends seem to taste a giant realignment, the reversal of the Reagan Revolution.  Are we there yet?

Maybe.  By 1980, the Democrats had one answer for everything:  spend more money!  Now Republicans seem to think that tax cuts cure everything from economic malaise to trenchmouth.  Maybe conservatism has simply run its course.

On the other hand, four years ago people were talking about an era of permanent Republican hegemony.  The worm can turn pretty quickly. 

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Obama is almost certain to disappoint in big ways; he doesn't have the money to pull an FDR, or even an LBJ.  He will have to fulfill their committments before he can look to his own, and the tax situation is looking pretty dire.  Obama may turn out to be the president of tax increases and spending cuts, which didn't work out so good for the first George Bush.

But for me, I think one thing is clear:  the Republican party cannot survive without some time in the wilderness.  Look at this election:  what do Republicans have to say, except "I'll cut your taxes and pay for it by cutting spending on some entirely fictional person who lives nowhere near you?"  and "Pointy headed liberals with fancy degrees are looking down on you!  Are you going to stand that?"  That's not a platform.  It's barely worthy of a drunken 3 am rant.

I don't like most of Obama's ideas, but at least he has some.  If conservatives really want smaller government and so forth, they need to step up their game.