1976 All Over Again?

Matt ponders the apparent liberal ascendancy:

So in a bad mood, one wonders if it didn't feel this way in 1976 -- or even more so in January of 1977. Conservatism triumphant, yet unmoored from principle in the figure of Richard Nixon, then brought into a disgrace from which the more moderate Gerald Ford couldn't solve it. A new president from the outside promising change, and a new bumper crop of "watergate class" members of congress ready to shake things up. But it all went to shit. I am, personally, an apologist for the Carter administration which I think was doing good things and got torpedoed by an unfortunate combination of objective reality (oil shocks, the need to curb inflation) and blinkered behavior by congressional leaders. Others read those events the other way 'round and see Carter as brought down by his deficiencies. You could even push the analogy further by considering the looming shadow of the Kennedy family and its circle of retainers, convinced that they deserve to rule and more interested in seizing the mantle than in cooperating to make a success out of the Carter administration.

This is, not coincidentally, how I think about the looming GOP dégringolade when I'm in a good mood. Indeed, in Grand New Party we explicitly compare Bush to Nixon in this regard - a President who assembled a coalition that might have provided the foundation for a lasting conservative majority, but whose blunders undid all his political successes and left his party seemingly worse off than when he found it. Which might mean, in turn, that if circumstances (and their predilection for infighting, and the fact that the resurgent liberalism hasn't quite honed its message to a Reaganesque point) conspire against the Democrats, the GOP will just need someone who can play Reagan to Dubya's Nixon in 2012 or 2016 - re-assembling and expanding his coalition, learning from his mistakes, and building a new conservative majority while the ashes of the old one are still warm.

There are a variety of reasons to think that it won't be this easy (starting, of course, with the fact that nothing about Reagan's victory in '80 was inevitable or easy, either), but one worth highlighting here is the problem of institutional inertia. Conservatism in the late '60s and '70s was essentially making things up as it went along, which made it flexible enough to adapt pretty readily to changing circumstances; conservatism in the early '00s, on the other hand, has all the features of a movement that's been too long in power, with entrenched institutions and rigid orthodoxies all over the place. In other words, today's Right resembles the liberalism of the Seventies much more than it does the conservatism of that era. Which means that even in the Obamafied Democratic Party makes a mess of things and the GOP reaps the benefits in 2012, it will be awfully hard for Republicans - like Carter-era Democrats before them - to overcome these structural obstacles and achieve more than a temporary revival.