A movement that survived Robert Taft’s untimely death in 1953, the Senate censure of Joseph McCarthy in 1954, Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, Ronald Reagan’s failure to win the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, the Iran-contra scandal of 1986, and Newt Gingrich’s sudden fall from grace in 1998 can easily outlive the 2006 elections. Especially when the results constituted a rejection of “Big Government Republicanism,” not traditional conservatism.
Even so, there were conservative political gains. Democrats won seats in the House and Senate by presenting moderate to conservative candidates with pro-life, pro-gun views. At least nine new conservative Republicans won House seats, bringing the membership of the conservative Republican Study Committee to nearly 100.
The 2006 elections were in fact a rejection of the spend-and-elect philosophy that characterized congressional Democrats for nearly 40 years while they were in power and then came to epitomize congressional Republicans in the latter part of their 12 years of rule. As David Keene of the American Conservative Union wrote, too many Republicans came to do good and stayed to do well for themselves, their families and their friends.
Two shrewd political observers -- Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform -- reached the same conclusion: Success spoiled congressional Republicans.
True conservatives in Congress are now free to follow a principled path of opposition for the good of the country. And they can call on a conservative movement that has never been stronger and more prepared for the battle of ideas. Consider these impressive assets:
Washington-based think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute continue to provide viable solutions for the nation’s most challenging problems, from taxes to government spending to trade. The State Policy Network of some 40 state think tanks is having a similar impact on state legislatures from Maine to California.
Student organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Leadership Institute and Young America’s Foundation are educating thousands of young people each year in conservative ideas. ISI also has more than 1,000 faculty associates. The Leadership Institute expects to have 1,000 active groups on America’s campuses by the end of the year. YAF speakers attract thousands of students to their lively appearances at American colleges and universities.
Conservative talk radio, led by talkmeister Rush Limbaugh, dominates the airwaves. National Review leads a parade of conservative opinion journals that includes The Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, Human Events and the American Conservative. Cal Thomas, George Will, Robert Novak and Charles Krauthammer are the most popular newspaper columnists in America. Authors Anne Coulter and Bill O’Reilly frequent the best-seller lists.
Wishful thinking liberals have tried to interpret the 2006 elections and the ensuing lively debate among conservatives about the future as signs of a conservative crackup or breakdown. But intense uninhibited debate is a sign of intellectual vigor, not decay.
I predict that the current debate among conservatives will lead to a renewed fusionism of the major strains -- traditionalist, libertarian, neoconservative -- of conservatism. It will be a fusionism based on the ideas of limited government, the free market, individual freedom and responsibility, a balance between liberty and law, a belief in a transcendent moral order, and a commitment to virtue, private and public.
These are the core beliefs, bounded by the Constitution, on which American conservatism rests and by which its most successful leaders have sought to govern.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater.