Democrats’ Gloating is Premature

August 7, 2006

While liberals are licking their chops in anticipation of the demise of conservatism, Democrats are proving they are incapable of capitalizing on any electoral difficulties Republicans might encounter in November.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently argued, “that this is the week in which conservatism… reached the point of collapse.” He said the Republican’s hypocritical support of an increase in the minimum wage was symptomatic of “profound fissures within the right.” He listed differences among conservatives over Iraq, immigration, stem cell research and federal spending.

Dionne said, “Between now and November, conservative leaders will dutifully try to rally the troops to stave off a Democratic victory. But their hearts won’t be in the fight. The decline of conservatism leaves a vacuum in American politics. An unhappy electorate is waiting to see who will fill it.”

I believe Dionne makes some valid points about certain internecine struggles on the right. But he misdiagnoses the basic problem, overestimates its significance and completely ignores the left’s deeper internal difficulties.

Most problems on the right are not due to a failure of conservatism as an effective ideological approach to policy and culture, but to the Republicans’ failure to govern as conservatives.

While conservatism’s image might be suffering, conservatism itself is hardly declining and remains alive, well, and anxiously waiting for its party to return. As Karl Rove correctly observed, the country remains mostly “center-right.” Neither inept Republican politicians nor an unpopular war change that fact.

Admittedly, the political right’s “big tent” is under strain on certain important issues. A schism has developed between open borders advocates and those favoring stricter immigration law enforcement. And Libertarians, ordinarily strong allies of conservatives, are increasingly disenchanted with the war and with social conservatism, though their myopic focus on economic issues militates against their abandoning conservatives, since liberals are irredeemably worse on economic issues.

But modern conservatism has never been about only economic issues. Social issues have always been vitally important. And while we enjoyed a seeming respite from consuming foreign policy concerns following the Cold War, it was only a matter of time before a new enemy bent on world domination would fill the void left by the implosion of Communism.

It might take some time for those in denial about the evils and prevalence of radical Islam to wake up to the nature and unavoidability of our enemy, but most Americans will eventually rally around these truths. This could involve some shifting in political alignments, and some will probably be holding their noses in joining with conservatives against this menace, but the ineluctable forces of history will pressure them to do so. Even Neville Chamberlain finally awakened to Hitler’s global designs.

Yes, there are also differences among conservatives on the war and overall foreign policy, with the sharpest disagreement being between so-called neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. Though these labels are oversimplified and even misleading, philosophical differences indeed exist.

Some put more faith in the civilizing capacity of democracy than others. But even many of those agnostic about the ultimate compatibility of Islam and democracy believe we had to remove Saddam Hussein despite our inability to guarantee that Iraq would be a stable and reliable ally in perpetuity.

Any attrition in conservative ranks due to the war will probably be more than replenished by those dissatisfied with the political left’s growing anti-war extremism and with the Democratic Party’s continuing impotence at crafting an alternative policy agenda — about anything. So before E.J. Dionne and his colleagues take their victory lap they need to explain how the anxiously anticipated “decline of conservatism” can result in a windfall to a Democratic Party that can’t agree whether to come back to the real world or surrender completely to its fringe crazies.

Newsbusters blog noted that on ABC’s “This Week,” former co-host Cokie Roberts stunned George Stephanopoulos with her observation that if Ned Lamont defeats Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut, it will be “a disaster for the Democratic Party.”

Roberts said, “pushing the party to the left… is pushing the party to the position from which it traditionally loses.” If other Democratic senators read a Lieberman defeat as a prescription to “play to your base,” you will “get just a total chaos.”

What Cokie seems to recognize is something E.J. Dionne has yet to grasp: No matter how tough things get for conservatives, Democrats are inescapably hostage to their militant base and otherwise ill-equipped to lead the world against the global Islamofascist jihad — facts not lost on most voters.