2012: Opportunity or Crisis for Tea Party Conservatism?

By Jacob Reses ’13

The most obvious question this election will answer is whether or not the policies of Barack Obama will survive for the next four years. But there is another question of similar consequence: What will be the lasting legacy of Obama-era conservatism?

Conservatives rightly recognize that the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is more than a choice between two conceptions of how to stoke growth in a weak economy. It is, to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase, a conflict of visions regarding human nature and the role of the state. It is a struggle against a liberalism that, in the words of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, “seeks to expand its dominion into every aspect of life and against every competitor to its demand for the exclusive allegiance of individuals.” The power of civil society – “family, locality, and Church” – is at odds with this Leviathan, which seeks to consolidate its gains in 2012 so that it can expand further through 2016. Election 2012 is the best chance to constrain it before the seeds planted since 2008 – Obamacare in particular – have a chance to sprout.

Clear as all of this may be to the Tory’s readership, few Americans outside the conservative movement are likely to accept this framing of the decision the country is about to make. Unemployment hovers near eight percent, and millions of young people have been left to languish in their parents’ basements. To voters worried about practical problems like how to pay the mortgage and grocery bills, conservative claims about the philosophical stakes in 2012 seem like hyperbole.

Liberals know that they don’t need to win the war of ideas during elections. With the entrenched media and political classes on their side to run interference, they can govern from the left while campaigning from the center. Conservative reformers, in contrast, can only succeed by winning national mandates for reform. This requires both unapologetic advocacy of conservative issue positions and dogged criticism of the progressive approach to governance. The danger in engaging in such criticism, though, is that it opens conservatives up to charges that they are engaging in fear-ridden demagoguery.

The dominant media narrative, of course, has been that the right is guilty of scare mongering – that Barack Obama is really a populist moderate being dragged down by partisans who will see him fail at any cost to the country. This narrative, supported by the straw men – Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, and Joe Walsh – that loom large in the minds of liberal journalists, has been quite effective for the last two years. Many voters in this country who are not especially inclined to give the incumbent another chance look at the media caricature of modern conservatism and throw their hands up in despair. Whereas they see the Republican Party and its conservative base as extreme, they see the president as something else. A bit too far left for their liking, to be sure, but also a bit hapless. A second Obama administration is something to be endured in their view, not something to be feared. And therein lies the problem for a conservative movement that seeks to unseat the president by winning the war of ideas: not enough Americans share conservatives’ deep ideological concerns at the moment.

The right conservative argument made the right way in the right environment might make these voters care about the deep debate over philosophy. Mitt Romney, after all, has performed best when making such a case, as he did in the weeks after the selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. But for the most part, that argument, that method, that environment, all seem elusive. For all his talents, Mitt Romney is not a Reaganesque great communicator capable of pulling all these threads together. Instead, he has done the best he can at making the case for conservatism given the circumstances that exist. That may end up being enough. It may not. We’ll see soon.

We are told often that the Americans who will decide this election can be won over by a kinder, gentler, squishier “conservative” candidate – the kind who is not conservative at all but who fits the beltway aspiration of “responsible” conservatism to a T. If this is true, it is not the whole story. In a country that self-identifies as conservative by a forty percent plurality, true conservatives should also be able to win enough uncommitted voters to carry a nationwide vote. But winning on principle isn’t always as easy as winning by pandering, and GOP leaders tend to prefer pursuing “moderate” voters by the path of least resistance.

Fortunately, this tendency has not asserted itself in this cycle. Governor Romney has laid out a bold, conservative agenda, and the GOP is as close as it has ever been to being in lockstep with its conservative base.  We should remember that just as this has not always been the case, it is not inevitable that it will remain true. This will become especially apparent next month should the incumbent president prevail on Election Day.

If President Obama survives, attention will turn immediately to Governor Romney’s decision early on in the Republican primaries to adopt what is, perhaps, the most conservative policy agenda ever offered by a Republican candidate for president. “If only he’d kept the Ryan budget at arm’s length. If only he hadn’t embraced the pro-lifers,” the media will tell us, not in sorrow or in anger but in glee. “He might have been a fine, moderate president. He just had to ruin it with all these crazy positions he took to appeal to the fringe.”

Fawning profiles will be written of the GOP moderates. Dick Lugar will find himself more popular on the cable news circuit out of power than he’d ever been while in office. There will be talk of another Jon Huntsman presidential campaign for 2016. Recall the sympathetic Newsweek profile of the then-ambassador that explained, “What the party needs now … is a leader who can negotiate a treaty of sorts between the right-wing base and forward-thinking moderates. The GOP, in other words, needs an ambassador.” Expect more follow-ups in a similar vein than you’ll have time to read.

The conservative movement will resist the Republican strategists urging a renewed “pragmatism” (i.e. a total surrender to Democrats on the issues that tend to be catnip for the mainstream media), as it should. But that does not mean resistance will be easy. President Obama will do all he can to paint conservatives who hold to their principles as obstructionists, and after his reelection and years of gridlock, many Americans will become increasingly sympathetic to his complaints. This will only drive the wedge between the GOP establishment and the conservative movement deeper, and the schism could become bloody, especially if talk of a third party resurfaces.

These disputes can be resolved, but four years is a short time to repair such fractures. If it takes longer than that to mend the fences, the conservative movement will have endured sixteen long years of Democratic rule before its next opportunity to win the White House. After sixteen years of media caricature and failed candidates, what kind of future will the Republican Party have, even if it retains its conservatism? And what kind of future will the conservative movement have if the Republican Party abandons it?

Of course, the election has not yet occurred, and the opportunity it offers is enormous: the Carterization of Barack Obama’s legacy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was criticized for his inarticulate claim that his highest political priority was the president’s electoral defeat, but in at least one important respect, there was something to his intuition. The defeat of President Obama will, in and of itself, have an impact on American politics that will shape our culture and public life well beyond what would have been his second term. “Not this. Too far,” many will come to say of Obama’s approach to governance. Even those who have not believed it for the last four years may come around, seeking retroactively to add additional justification for their votes against the incumbent. The American people like to justify their votes to themselves after they’ve made them, and the Obama record is terrible enough that they’ll find plenty of reasons to chew on after tossing the incumbent.

If this election turns out the right way, Tea Party conservatism will be well on the way to accomplishing a top long-term political priority: the legitimization of its own ideology and its critique of Obama-era liberal extremism. If the president wins, though, there is a very real risk that the conservative movement will find itself in the wilderness.

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Conservatives had, for so long, feared that a Mitt Romney presidency would water down the movement – that Eisenhower Republicanism would crowd out Tea Partyism for the four or eight years of a Romney administration. Whether those suspicions were well-founded or not matters little now. The fate of American conservatism may now rest in the hands of the man once derided as a Massachusetts moderate.

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