- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Conservatives are despondent these days and not without cause. As the calendar turns to 2008, they are pressed on both policy and political fronts.

For the first time since Reagan’s election more than a quarter-century ago, their control of the Republican party is questioned.

Now is a good time for conservatives to take a perspective, as well as a prospective, view. Things not only are not as bad as they seem but not nearly as bad as they were three decades ago.

The key then and now to conservatives’ success is their willingness to see beyond the transient problems of the next election to the transcendent principles they profess to hold.

Conventional wisdom is that conservatives’ problems are universal. The Iraq war continues without prospect for substantial American withdrawal soon. Domestically, the conservative agenda is dead in the water without possibility for near-term revival. Their signature accomplishment, the economy fueled by the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, seems to be struggling under the subprime squeeze and high energy prices. Not surprisingly, political worries also abound.

Trailing in the polls, each of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates has an aspect that collectively could make an ideal conservative nominee, yet no single candidate seems a perfect fit.

Dark days indeed for conservatives. Just one problem with this pessimism: Mostly, it’s untrue. It does not take a political Pollyanna to take such a position, just a little insight and historical perspective.

In Iraq, the surge strategy is working by all objective accounts. To paraphrase Churchill, if not the beginning of the end, it is at least the end of the beginning. Domestically the conservative agenda — such as making the 2001 tax cuts permanent or reforming Social Security — is stymied, but so too are agendas of every persuasion in Washington.

Economically the country continues to move forward over obstacles that would have derailed any of its global competitors. Despite the repercussions of the subprime lending collapse and escalating energy prices, the economy grew 4.9 percent in the last quarter and has averaged almost 3 percent annual real growth since 2001. Inflation is just 3½ percent over the last 12 months (and excluding food and energy is just 2.1 percent), unemployment at 4.7 percent is near its six-year low, and interest rates remain comparatively low.

Yes, there has been a negative political effect on the president and the Republican Party but the dour political climate is hardly confined there. Like political agendas, candidates and parties of all persuasions are suffering in popular approval currently. And Republicans, if not conservatives, have the greatest potential for seeing their political landscape improve next year with a new nominee.

Conservatives therefore should not focus on these transient issues but on long-term ones of where conservatism is going and who will lead it. To understand these questions’ importance, some historical perspective is not only reassuring but instructive.

Conservatives’ real Dark Age occurred three decades ago in the mid-1970s. Internationally, the country entered the century’s lowest ebb with South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos falling to the communists in 1975. The economy was almost as bad. There was double-digit inflation in 1975 and even significant improvement left it at almost 8 percent in 1976. The economy entered recession, contracting for four of five quarters from the beginning of 1974 through first-quarter 1975. Unemployment reached 8.9 percent in May, 1975 and 1 million additional workers were out of work by December.

Politically, it was worse. Republicans held only 144 House and 37 Senate seats. Facing imminent impeachment, Richard Nixon had just resigned and taking his place was Gerald Ford, the nation’s only unelected vice president and president. Shortly after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon and sent his popularity plummeting.

Yet despite his seeming unelectability Ford still managed to edge out conservative favorite Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Challenging seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he barely lost the election — just 50 percent to 47.9 percent and 297 to 240 electoral votes. That narrow short-term loss set the stage for a far more important long-term gain: Reagan’s resounding victory in 1980.

Still the standard for conservative standard bearers, Reagan won 28 of 34 Republican primaries, gained all but 55 votes in securing the nomination, and beat Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, by 10 percentage points in the popular vote and 489-49 in electoral votes and gave conservatives a control of the Republican Party they still retain.

Facing far worse than they do today, conservatives went in just four years from outcasts to ascendancy. This was neither accident nor Mr. Carter, it was Reagan. He embodied the optimism of conservatism — that the strength of America is in its people and its principles, not in its government. Because he knew who he was and where he stood, the nation could, and regained its strength around him.

Reagan did not simply seek short-term votes but was patient and let the people find him and, in doing so, find themselves and vindicate his vision. Today’s conservatives must do likewise and not be defined by transient problems but instead by their core beliefs.

Neither the 2008 election nor the Republican Party are beyond conservatives’ grasp, but more important than either is that they retain their identity.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 until 2004 and as a congressional staff member in 1987-2000.



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