One of the least appreciated of Bill Clinton’s legacies is how he destroyed the conservative movement. It was not the product of a successful Clinton strategy but the product of his failures. This election cycle deals with the repercussions of this legacy.
Prior to Clinton, the conservative movement existed in a symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party but had a separate culture because of the need to build coalitions with conservative Democrats who shared their policy goals. During the early years of the Clinton presidency, leading up to 1994, scores of conservative Democrats became Republicans.
By the time George W. Bush arrived in Washington, the conservative movement had fully moved to within the Republican Party. Conservative Democrats had walked across the aisle, making bipartisan outreach unnecessary. By the the midpoint of Bush’s presidency, people were talking nonironically about “Big Government conservatives,” which before Clinton’s term would have been merely Republicans who put party ahead of principle.
As George Bush left office, conservatives who had seen his father put David Souter on the Supreme Court were championing Harriet Miers, fighting one another over immigration policy, supporting TARP, okaying the saving of General Motors and turning a polite blind eye to Bush’s claim that he had to kill the free market to save it.
Without a successor coming from Bush, conservatives could not really have a cathartic moment of either embracing or rejecting his legacy by embracing or rejecting his heir apparent. We went all the way back to 2000 and decided to fight old fights with John McCain and Mitt Romney as the best proxy for conservatives. Conservatives who hitched a ride with Romney did not expect him to run in 2012 like John McCain, let alone as the heir to Bush’s Big Government conservatism.
The internecine fights we are witnessing are about a conservative movement starting to separate itself again from the Republican Party. Unfortunately, neither of the front runners have legitimate conservative integrity to claim the banner of conservative-movement leader, but they will both try. Romney will hold the banner for conservatives within the GOP, and Gingrich will hold the banner of the traditional alliance of conservatives with the GOP.
Conservatives will probably need one more election cycle, either fighting an incumbent Republican President or starting over in 2016 with a fresh, clean slate purged of potential heirs to the Bush years, to finally decide whether the movement will stay fully intertwined with the GOP as an organ of the party or transition back to its traditional place as a key player within the GOP but with a truly independent identity.
Erickson is managing editor of the blog RedState.com. The views expressed are solely his own.
(MORE: The Conservative Identity Crisis)