Election Day 2008 was a defeat for conservatism, but not the massacre that seemed in the offing two weeks ago. Considering everything that was working against the Republicans this year, for Sen. Obama to receive 52.4% of the popular vote to John McCain’s 46.3% is not underwhelming, but certainly a liberal victory no better than merely whelming. If Pres. Obama and the congressional Democrats find the right mixture of audacity and caution, they may succeed over the next four, and possibly eight, years in moving the country significantly closer to embracing the European social democratic ideal of governments that hector capitalists while accommodating terrorists. But this will be a process, not an event. The 2008 election revealed that America is more liberal than it has been since 1992, maybe even more than it has been since 1964. The election also showed, however, that the American and Swedish electorates remain readily distinguishable.
Come January, Democrats will control the House, Senate and presidency, something that has been true for only six of the past 40 years. This will be bad for the country but good, or at any rate necessary, for conservatism. It’s hard to rebuild the plane’s engines and instrument panels while you’re flying it. Conservatives need to consider fundamental changes in what they aspire to accomplish, and how they explain their aspirations, which will require a searching internal debate that is impossible to undertake while governing a nation. While they figure out destinations for the new tracks they want to lay, conservatives will, once more, be standing athwart history crying Stop.
The perception that the Democrats’ victory was quite a few boulders short of a landslide will lead some conservatives to believe that nothing more basic than better luck, better candidates and better circumstances is necessary for happy days to be here again. That would be a mistake. Compassionate conservatism, unveiled by George W. Bush when he was a presidential candidate nine years ago, didn’t turn out to be a very good answer, but it was an attempt to answer a good, and still pressing question: What is to be done when conservative conservatism is no longer a sufficient basis on which to campaign or govern successfully? It has been 13 years since Newt Gingrich lost the government shutdown battle to Bill Clinton. That’s a long time to be without a Plan B after it has become excruciatingly clear that Plan A cannot be made to work.