In 1980, when I was 20 years old, something happened I never expected to see in my lifetime — The Republicans took control of the United States Senate.
Yes, Republicans had been able to elect a president now and then. But Congress was assumed (by me and everyone else) to be under the permanent control of the Democrats.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan changed all that. His coattails brought an unexpected swing of 12 seats that put the GOP in the majority, 53 to 46. An era began. In a few days, that era will end, as President-elect Barack Obama‘s Inauguration ushers in a (likely) sustained period of strong Democratic majorities in the Congress and control of the White House.
An era is ending. It’s a good time for reflection: What did conservatives accomplish?
No, we did not shrink the size of government. Federal government spending has grown from almost $600 billion per year in 1980 to almost $3 trillion in 2008.
The greatest achievement of my lifetime is the defeat of communism. Jihadism has its terrors, but they are limited (as President-elect Obama pointed out in the campaign) compared to the old communist threat. Today, no foreign force currently on the planet can credibly threaten to topple the democracies of the world, including the United States. That’s a pretty big change.
Along with communism we triumphed over socialism. Everyone now agrees that some form of market economics beats massive central planning in generating wealth. (Ask the Chinese.) Even the current massive downturn is unlikely to completely erase this signal achievement. Marginal tax rates will never (cross your fingers) return to the confiscatory and self-defeating 70-percent-plus levels of my youth.
Mr. Obama’s victory marks the consolidation of another conservative triumph: the acceptance of God in the public square. President-elect Obama, like most Americans, is comfortable bringing his faith into his conversation. Think about what a triumph this is for conservatism: The most ideologically liberal candidate perhaps ever elected is also a president who squarely comes down on the side of openness to religious language - to acknowledging the American faith tradition in public.
Mr. Obama’s Inauguration reminds us that liberalism’s once fanatical attempt to rigidly turn the First Amendment into a club that government could use to beat back religious expression - failed. A revival of the grand American tradition of religious liberty, in contrast to the French ideal of forced public secularization, is (I hope) one of the conservative movement’s lasting achievements.
The conservative movement brought forth not only a generation of intellectuals (like Richard John Neuhaus) to clothe the naked public square, but also a new network of public interest law firms to defend religious liberty, from Christian organizations such as the Alliance Defense Fund to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defends the rights of all faith traditions.
And in the end Democrats got tired of losing elections because their intellectual elites wanted to suppress the “G” word in public.
On life and marriage issues, the most important thing is that they are still around. In America, unlike, say, in Canada or Europe, marriage is still viewed as an important social institution for protecting children, and being opposed to an abortion is an intellectually and morally respectable position. Partial-birth abortions are at least theoretically banned. Conscience clauses, such as the Weldon Amendment, protect people, organizations and facilities from discrimination by the government if they refuse to participate in the abortion choice.
These are not small achievements. They are, of course, far less than I hoped for at age 20, surveying the glittering new world that the election of Ronald Reagan had opened up.
Obama Democrats: Your turn at bat.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist.