Close of an Era

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History by Donald T. Critchlow, Harvard University Press, 359 pages, $27.95

Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum, Doubleday, 213 pages, $24.95

Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95

No matter who wins the presidency in 2008, an entire political era, dating back to 1974, appears to be ending. Neither the era's central political figure, Ronald Reagan, nor Reagan's Republican successors managed to undo the New Deal or the basic reforms of the 1960s. Yet by skewing the progressive tax system, politicizing the federal judiciary, and otherwise moving the country to the right--and by helping to bring the Cold War to the edge of resolution--Reagan dramatically affected the sum and substance of politics at home and abroad. Despite an interruption in the late 1970s and a temporary reversal in the 1990s, the age of Reagan has marked the longest era of conservative political domination in American history--roughly as long as the period from the rise of the New Deal to the fall of the Great Society.

The close of the Reagan era will not automatically bring a dramatic shift toward liberal government comparable to the rightward shift of 1980. Conservatism and the Republican Party may be in deep trouble, but neither is going away; indeed, the Republicans could well fare far better in November than anyone would have predicted only a few months ago. A reopened rift between the left wing of the Democratic Party and its traditional middle- and working-class base--a rift that has dogged Democrats in national politics for 40 years--could easily cause the party, yet again, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Even if an old order has died, the future remains uncertain.

Still, it is startling to recall how quickly the political landscape has changed from what it was in the years immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001--and how profoundly. "Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades," the conservative commentator Fred Barnes rejoiced following George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. Today that hegemony looks like a mirage, no matter how well the Republicans fare in the next elections. On the day Bush narrowly won his second term, Americans identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats in roughly equal numbers. But in the 2006 midterm elections, the voters repudiated Bush and the Republicans and wiped away the Republicans' substantial majorities in Congress. And in 2007, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 15 percentage points.

Despite the bitter presidential primary campaign, the Democrats are still in a potentially strong position and seem likely to win a clear majority in the Senate and an enlarged majority in the House. John McCain, having secured the Republican nomination, now must whip up enthusiastic support from skeptical religious conservatives who voted for Mike Huckabee in the primaries--and he must do so without alienating moderates and independents. If he is to win in November, McCain will have to cobble together a new electoral majority--and, if elected, he will then have to learn how to deal with an invigorated Democratic Congress. McCain's compensatory maneuvering thus far shows that he cannot count on reassembling, yet again, the old Reagan coalition. "It's gone," Ed Rollins, Reagan's White House political director said recently. "It doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore."

How can we explain, in historical terms, the Reagan era's rise, persistence, and decline? And how might Republican conservatism try to escape from its morass? Donald T. Critchlow's The Conservative Ascendancy, a useful survey of conservative politics since World War II, explains Reaganism's origins and triumph and interprets how the Republican right has actually governed. David Frum's Comeback, a rallying cry for stunned and perplexed conservatives, attempts a blueprint for Republican renewal. Together these books point out, sometimes unintentionally, the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a movement whose success grew directly from the political deformations of the 1960s.

The author of a sympathetic, highly informative monograph on the right-wing organizer and polemicist Phyllis Schlafly, Critchlow is particularly knowledgeable about the decades before 1980, and The Conservative Ascendancy is heavily weighted toward conservatism's ascent. Much of the book's discussion of the Reagan era's intellectual and political origins--the early influential writings of Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk, McCarthyism and the spread of right-wing popular anti-communism, the birth of National Review--although indispensable to any general survey, is also familiar. The narrative comes alive when it reaches the 1960s and traces how a small and politically isolated Republican right fitfully and improbably began taking over the party.

Some of this material will come as a surprise to readers other than academic specialists--or aging Republicans with elephant-like memories. Historians have made a great deal, for example, out of the rivalry between Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller in 1960, and of how Nixon secured Rockefeller's support by giving him control of the Republican platform, in the so-called Treaty of Fifth Avenue. This agreement, supposedly, was one of the high points of the post–New Deal, moderate-to-liberal persuasion known as modern Republicanism, albeit linked to Nixon's shrewd, amoral pursuit of power. But Critchlow draws attention elsewhere, to the nearly forgotten challenge to Nixon in 1960 by conservative Republican hardliners, led by an activist in the John Birch Society and former dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School, Clarence Manion.

The hardliners, who despised Rockefeller and deeply distrusted Nixon, wanted to draft Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination. Goldwater, who had already supported Nixon, was a party loyalist as well as a staunch conservative, and he would go no further than to permit Manion to publish a brief manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by William F. Buckley's brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozelle Jr. Thus was born, almost as an afterthought, the most popular political tract of the modern American political right. Subsequent events followed a similarly twisting, capricious course. Disgusted by the Treaty of Fifth Avenue, Goldwater allowed the nomination draft to proceed but then withdrew his name from contention and backed Nixon's near-miss campaign. He finally won the nomination in 1964--but only after the front-runner, Nelson Rockefeller, who had separated from his wife in 1961 and divorced her a year later, ruined his chances by marrying another recent divorcee, in blatant violation of the social protocols that still governed public life.

These portions of Critchlow's book are his best, alert to paradox and to the contingent, unpredictable character of American politics. He emphasizes, above all, that Reagan's rise after the conservative debacle of 1964 was hardly inevitable. Without Watergate, which Critchlow calls Nixon's "failed coup of 1972," and the self-deluded Democrats' march to the left, the crisis of the mainline Republican establishment that presaged Reagan's election would never have occurred. Had Reagan succeeded in his challenge to the 1976 renomination of the accidental president, Gerald Ford, Critchlow writes, he "would surely have lost the general election in the Watergate backlash" and probably destroyed his national ambitions.

Critchlow also underscores how the right's triumph depended on the Democrats' collapse into political incoherence. After Watergate, liberal Democrats mistook the rejection of the Republicans in the 1974 midterm elections and Jimmy Carter's election two years later as the rebirth of the imagined liberal consensus of the Great Society. But Carter's blend of high-minded morality and Southern progressivism alienated him from the party's left wing, and a fractious Democratic Congress tore him apart. The devastating combination of a sinking economy and Carter's inability to master world events--particularly the breakdown of Cold War realpolitik in Iran, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan--doomed his administration. Thereafter, the Democrats, reduced to the status of a congressional party, failed to heal the divisions, dating from the late 1960s, between their highly educated, affluent left wing and their traditional blue-collar base--the divisions that have persisted to this day.

Reagan and the Republican right did not, of course, win the presidency by default. Adding newly organized evangelical Christians to Reagan's coalition consolidated the Solid South. A plethora of right-wing think tanks founded in the 1970s gave Reaganism an aura of innovation. (Sidney Blumenthal's newly reissued The Rise of the Counter-Establishment more fully chronicles the institutional growth of the right.) By placing on his ticket, in 1980, George H.W. Bush, the man whom he had defeated in the primaries, Reagan completed a merger of the Republican right with the battered party establishment. Yet even then, Reagan captured only a bare majority of the popular vote in 1980--and polls showed that the outcome was, Critchlow writes, mainly "a rejection of Carter, specifically his economic record, rather than a complete endorsement of Reagan."

Critchlow's account becomes more cursory, simplified, and at times tendentious once Reagan's presidency begins. The book does capture the pragmatism behind Reagan's more doctrinaire pronouncements. Critchlow notes, correctly, that although Reagan won some of his highest priorities--slashing the top marginal tax rates on individual incomes and corporate earnings, deregulating entire industries--the so-called Reagan revolution did not come close to fulfilling its agenda of rolling back the New Deal and the Great Society.

Yet once he reaches the Reagan years, Critchlow presents as rosy a picture as possible. He either ignores the damaging effects of Reaganomics, such as astronomical deficits and deepening economic inequality, or treats them as illusions ginned up by Democratic partisans and the liberal media. Critchlow either overlooks the cronyism and looting of the 1980s--most spectacularly at the Pentagon, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development--or ascribes them to "mismanagement" that gave the career civil servants of the so-called liberal administrative state a pretext to thwart Reagan's reforms. He describes the savings-and-loan crisis as an unintended consequence of Reagan's deregulation, without mentioning how the administration repeatedly ignored warnings about the looming disaster and obstructed oversight--the costliest government malfeasance of its kind in history. On foreign policy, Critchlow generally endorses the triumphalist Reagan-centered view advanced by Reagan's most fervent admirers about his greatest achievement as president, working with Mikhail Gorbachev and helping to end the Cold War. Critchlow mentions but glosses over the staunch conservative opposition that Reagan faced over arms reduction and his embrace of the new Soviet leader, along with other awkward details that call for a more complicated rendering.

Critchlow offers a brief account of the 1990s as a decade of skirmishes--one that produced no absolute victory for the right or the left but that nevertheless tempered the Republican right and strengthened its grassroots base. Much of the basic narrative, although skimpy, is accurate enough, beginning with the Republican divisions that widened under George H.W. Bush and that helped elect the centrist liberal Bill Clinton. Yet, just as he slights the damage of the Reagan years, Critchlow says virtually nothing about the achievements of Clinton's two terms, which included the greatest reduction in the poverty rate and the greatest increase in family income and wages since the 1960s, even as Clinton's policies turned enormous federal deficits into surpluses, ready for the next president, presumably Al Gore, to deploy as social investments. And Critchlow likewise slights Clinton's political achievement--not in consolidating a new center-left Democratic Party (where, as Critchlow correctly observes, Clinton failed) but in fending off Newt Gingrich, opening the way for a further rightward lunge led by Republicans such as Tom DeLay, who always thought Gingrich too weak-kneed.

Critchlow then strains disbelief by describing George W. Bush's dubious elevation to the White House in 2000 as "the triumph of the conservative ascendancy." In fact, Bush's victory--made possible by Ralph Nader's nihilism and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that rendered the decision in Bush v. Gore--testified to the Democrats' renewed haplessness and the Republicans' ruthlessness, not to conservatism's waxing strengths. And the Bush years--emblemized by DeLay's corrupt regime on Capitol Hill (which Critchlow never mentions), the Terri Schiavo spectacle (also unmentioned), and the lethargic and incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as by Bush's faltering and finally failed presidency and the disaster in Iraq--have exhausted Reaganite conservatism, intellectually and politically. This exhaustion provides David Frum with his jumping off point.

A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and the author of numerous neoconservative political tracts and commentaries, Frum had the good fortune and the misfortune of publishing, in 2003, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush--a bestseller that appeared as Bush's popularity peaked but that also reflected the Bush presidency's destructive (and self-destructive) hubris. Today Frum acknowledges the debit side of his former hero's administration: "So many mistakes! And such stubborn refusal to correct them while there was still time! So many lives needlessly sacrificed, so much money wasted, so many friends alienated, so many enemies strengthened." Live and learn.

The trouble didn't start, though, with George W. Bush's presidency. Although it has been masked by the shock of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Frum writes, American voters have actually been moving leftward since the mid-1990s--that is (although Frum doesn't quite recognize this), since Bill Clinton began making his comeback after the 1994 midterm elections. The political tide began shifting in 1995, when Gingrich lost the battle over the government shutdowns. Thereafter came Clinton's re-election, the failed partisan impeachment drive of 1998, and the strange presidential election of 2000, which the Republicans would have lost, Frum claims, had Bush not "cunningly presented himself as Clinton's true heir"--a reformer with results in contrast to the confused Gore, who never seemed to decide whether he was a New Democrat or a reborn populist. Events since 2000 have made matters worse from a Republican standpoint, to the point where more than four in five Americans--the highest figure ever recorded--have come to believe that the nation is on the wrong track.

Frum hopes and believes that Bush, despite his failings, will eventually be remembered positively, both for his decision, in line with neoconservative thinking, to invade Iraq and his effort to move the Republican Party away from Reaganism "toward a new, softer centrism." A much stronger case can be made, however, that under the tutelage of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, President Bush has governed as a radical and tried to complete what Reagan started. It is the essential radicalism of the Republican Party at the tag-end of the Reagan era that makes Comeback's prescriptions for a new winning conservatism seem far-fetched.

Frum is not the only anxious conservative who is urging what might be thought of as a Republican perestroika. In Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam develop their earlier writings on those voters whom Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has dubbed "Sam's Club Republicans" and urge conservatives to appeal to the economic interests as well as the cultural values of working-class, erstwhile Reagan Democrats. Frum offers a broader array of new policy proposals that point to what he calls updated, post-Reagan conservatism but amount to an adjustment leftward toward the center-right. For example, he would inject new life into the pro-life movement by stressing education and moral suasion over coercion and legal reform. He seeks prison reform "to ameliorate [the] harshness and ugliness" of prison conditions and to otherwise "infuse justice with gentleness." He even outlines a new "green conservatism" that has as its centerpiece a heavy tax on oil, natural gas, and coal.

Holding aside whether these policies would work--I leave that question to the policy experts--such ideas, at least for the moment, have no prospect of support inside the Republican Party, as currently dominated by three key constituencies: the religious right, the neoconservatives, and the pro-business, anti-tax radicals. The age of Reagan, growing out of the distempers of the 1960s and 1970s, gradually produced a Republican Party very different from the one he led to victory. Ever since, the GOP has devoted itself to conducting crusades rather than to conducting the business of politics and government. Gone is the willingness to compromise and maneuver that helped make Reagan himself a successful politician and president. Gone, too, is almost any trace of the moderate Republicanism that, under Reagan, helped check the more zealous ideologues inside the White House. With Bush leaving office, there will no longer be even a remnant of the old party establishment that Reagan married to the New Right. And even some stalwart Reagan Republicans have grown disgusted at what befell conservatism and their old party, especially during the Bush-Cheney years. "The political movement that I helped to create as a leader in the conservative movement is now in the process of destroying everything it had once professed to believe in," former Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma writes in his new book, Reclaiming Conservatism.

It is, of course, conceivable that McCain will be able to hold, through November, the hard-right line without losing the support of moderates and independents who regard him as a free-thinking conservative. Yet even if that happens, a conservative President McCain would have to satisfy an electoral coalition very different from Reagan's, and in a post–Cold War world vastly different from the world of the 1980s. Almost certainly, he would have to deal with a Congress where Democrats control both houses, as Reagan did not until the final years of his presidency. He would also face a doctrinaire Republican congressional minority that, reflecting what the Republican Party has become, stands well to his own right and suspects he is a heretic.

No matter what happens, the Republican Party is unlikely to rejuvenate itself fully until a moderating force comes along with far more political power than Frum or any group of political commentators possess--more, even, than McCain. That force, as yet, is nowhere to be seen. But sooner rather than later, the age of Reagan finally will come to an end. Whatever follows, whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, will be something new.

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