This isn’t a crisis; it’s a primary. A dispiriting one, to be sure, but it shouldn’t obscure the significant strengths of contemporary conservatism.
We are a year out from a historic election that produced a conservative majority in the House and led to the passage in that chamber of a genuinely transformational budget in the form of the Ryan plan. Every Republican presidential candidate swung around some version of that plan, the centerpiece of a partywide policy consensus that is to the right of any that has existed in recent memory. There are robust conservative alternative media across all platforms, a mature network of national and state-based think tanks and an aroused grassroots movement that sprang up spontaneously in 2009 and breathed life into a GOP discredited by the late, decadent phase of the Bush years and devastated by its defeat in the Obama sweep. American public opinion is broadly conservative (41% identify themselves as conservative in the latest Gallup survey) and highly distrustful of the federal government. If this is a crisis, every ideological movement should want to suffer one.
About that primary: It is generating more heat than light. Mitt Romney has all the hallmarks of a classic Establishment Republican and Newt Gingrich of a conservative upstart. But neither is challenging the triad of postwar conservatism consisting of limited government, traditionalism on social issues and a muscular national defense. The starkest differences between the two have to do with style and background. Romney is the cautious, button-down former businessman and governor from the Northeast. Gingrich is the flame-throwing, frenetic partisan provocateur and former Speaker of the House from the South. Loads of philosophical freight can be heaped upon these differences — and have been — but the substantive daylight is small. Surely Romney is not the presidential candidate Tea Partyers had in mind when their uprising began. Yet his candidacy tells us something about the historic rightward trend in the party: here is the son of George Romney, a Rockefeller Republican in good standing, running to be the champion of a thoroughly Reaganite party.
The domestic priorities for a Republican President have already been teed up: repeal Obamacare, sign the Ryan budget and — although this isn’t as fleshed out — reform taxes. Should these happen, it would reverse liberalism’s major gains from 2009[EN]10 and headline what would be the most consequential period of conservative reform since Reagan.
Lowry is the editor of National Review. The views expressed are solely his own.
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