The conservative project has two main parts: first, winning the argument, and, second, winning elections. The first is a job for what we call the conservative movement, meaning everything from magazines such as National Review to think tanks, advocacy groups, talk radio, and book publishers; the second is mainly the job of the Republican party and organizations such as the Club for Growth, which helps to ensure that victories for Republicans are victories for conservatives. There’s always a great deal of tension between those two goals, as we can see in everything from the current intramural fight over shutdown tactics to the ongoing debate over how much weight we should give to philosophical rigor versus “electability” when it comes to the nomination of candidates. NR’s principle of supporting the most conservative viable candidate is a way to try to balance those priorities, but the best way of proceeding under that guideline is not always self-evident.
That conundrum is worth thinking about right now in light of this astonishing fact: When it comes to the policy opinions of American voters, there have been three peak years for conservatism: 1952, 1980, and . . . right now, according to Professor James A. Stimson, whose decades-long “policy mood” project tracks the changing opinions of the U.S. electorate. Americans have grown more conservative on the whole, but the even more remarkable fact is that the electorate has grown more conservative in every state. As Larry Bartels points out in the Washington Post, the paradoxical fact is that Barack Obama was first elected in a year in which the American policy mood already was unusually conservative, and he was reelected in a year in which it had grown more conservative still. And so the question: Why did an increasingly conservative electorate elect and reelect one of the most left-wing administrations, if not the most left-wing, in American history?
That seeming paradox may be explained in part by the fact that the American public’s increasingly conservative views are not associated with an increased sense of identification with the Republican party. In late January 2004, Gallup found a Republican/Democrat split of 31 percent to 33 percent in the Democrats’ favor, with more identifying as independent (35 percent) than as a member of either party. In September of this year, those numbers were 22/31/45. Add in the “leaners” — those who do not strictly identify with one party but generally are inclined toward its views — and the GOP was at a 44/51 disadvantage in 2004, and today is at a 41/47 disadvantage. Which is to say, the Republicans lost 3 percent who didn’t move to the Democrats, and the Democrats lost 4 percent who didn’t move to the Republicans. Independents jumped from 35 percent to 45 percent during that period.
It’s worth nothing that the rightward shift was not uniform across all issues, with the notable exception being the question of gay marriage, which Americans have grown consistently more friendly toward. (Was it as late as 2008 that Barack Obama ran for office opposing gay marriage? It was, indeed. Was it as late as 2012 that he felt safe announcing his not-unexpected reversal? Indeed.) Those of us who take a more traditional view of the role of marriage and family should note that if the American people are here in error, it is an error that in one sense speaks well of them: Americans’ shifting views on gay marriage are rooted in a deeply American sense of fair play and toleration. They may have come to the wrong conclusion, but their hearts are in the right place.
But it does not necessarily follow that Republicans would achieve better election outcomes if they started nominating candidates who were even more conservative than the most recent crops (on everything but gay marriage). The Bush-era deficits seriously damaged the GOP’s reputation as the party of fiscal restraint, and its tax-cuts-above-all economic agenda is probably less appealing in a period when Americans, though still very much concerned about the bottom line on their paychecks, are also concerned about the top line as wages stagnate — and about whether they will be receiving paychecks at all in the near future. The Republicans spent a generation building up their credibility as the party of national defense, only to see that undermined by inconclusive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Rand Paul may have tapped into a powerful current with his drones filibuster, but his concern for civil liberties, although shared by a growing number of Republicans, remains a distinctly minority disposition within his party.
In a discussion this week with National Review’s editors, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana noted that Republicans and conservatives are having much better luck at the state level, with 30 GOP governors making real advances in important areas ranging from education to health care to criminal-justice reform — not issues generally associated with the elephant brand in the public mind. And consider: How many Americans know that in Rick Perry’s Texas the rate of incarceration has been going down? How many know that under the gubernatorial leadership of Mary Fallin, Oklahoma has seen its emergency cash reserves grow from $2.03 — actual couch-cushion money — to $600 million? If Republicans want to be seen as the party of getting stuff done, it has at least 30 theaters of action from which to choose. Instead, the drama is focused on Washington, where the GOP controls one chamber of one branch — enough to get blamed for Washington dysfunction, but not enough to govern.
So as the electorate grows paradoxically more conservative and less friendly to Republicans, the challenge for the GOP is to figure out how to connect its conservatism with a conservative public that distrusts the conservative party. That doesn’t sound like a terribly difficult challenge, but it is. Conservatism is a philosophy, which is a different thing from a specific policy agenda. Talking endlessly about the middle class is not going to cut it, nor is tinkering with tax rates. And beyond the specific political platform, Republicans have to show that they can be trusted to govern with the best interests of the broad electorate in mind. In 2013, showing that Republicans can govern starts with Republican governors. If there is any upside to the shutdown showdown, it is that by highlighting the fecklessness and foolishness of Washington, it increases the odds that a governor rather than a senator will emerge to lead the GOP in the next great contest.