View from Australia: The next administration

By Jonathan Bradley

For some, the dusk, is always the last moment before a new morning in America. In the latest Weekly Standard, William Kristol channels Faulkner and offers a vision of eternal conservative optimism:

For every American conservative, not once but whenever he wants it, it’s always the evening of November 4, 1980, the instant when we knew Ronald Reagan, the man who gave the speech in the lost cause of 1964, leader of the movement since 1966, derided by liberal elites and despised by the Republican establishment, the moment when we knew—he’d won, we’d won, the impossible dream was possible, the desperate gamble of modern conservatism might pay off, conservatism had a chance, America had a chance. And then, a decade later—the Cold War won, the economy revived, America led out of the abyss, we’d come so far with so much at stake—conservatism vindicated, America restored, a desperate and unbelievable victory for the cast made so many years ago against such odds.

Kristol, this time, is not one of the hopeful. 2012, he says, will not be 1980. The Republican field is too weak, and though the year may prove good for the GOP, the right needs to look to a non-Reagan model of success.

Since even before the fourth day in November 2008, on which John McCain lost to Barack Obama, conservatives have been fretfully wondering how to reinvent their politics. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam penned Grand New Party, which urged conservatives to reshape themselves in the model the authors call "Sam's Club Republicanism." David Frum became a near apostate in his attempts to push the GOP to reinvent itself. And large sections of the blogosphere, conservative media, and the voters making up the party's base disregarded them all and doubled down on their existing ideology. Conservatives, they said, must show stricter allegiance to their stated ideals of fewer government services, reduced spending, and lower taxes. If November 4, 2008 was the one day on which it was decidedly, incontrovertibly not November 4, 1980, then only by returning their gaze to the tenets of Reaganism could the Party of Reagan find its way back to that hallowed day. 

Kristol is right that 2012 will not be 1980. Mitt Romney is no Reagan. Nor is Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. But a Republican has a good chance of winning next year nonetheless, and if that national return to conservatism should eventuate, the winning Republican will need to actually govern the country for four years.

America's leftward shift, beginning with the midterm elections in 2006, was in part an expression of public frustration with the faliures of the Bush administration, but it was also underpinned by a solid program of reforms Democrats had been assembling while out of power. Some of these were mere rejections of Bush policy, such as the opposition to the war in Iraq — though even this was framed in terms of reorienting the military's attention to the Afghanistan theatre. Others, however, were long-held ambitions that were gradually gaining public support and hindered only by conservative governance. Democrats were able to implement just part of their package of universal health care; carbon emission reduction and green energy; card-check labour reform; and new financial regulation, but when they gained power in Washington, they did so with a full policy agenda to pursue.

Republicans have found energy, and, in 2010, electoral success, by standing athwart that agenda and yelling stop, but by seeing their losses in 2006 and 2008 as a failure of purity rather than policy, they've equipped themselves poorly for the future. The American people have not reacted to Barack Obama with the the disgust the Republican base has. They are unhappy that he has been unable to start the economy growing again, and may vote him out because of it, but they still generally like the president. They also have little fondness for Republicans who do have power, particularly those in Congress. Democrats lead Republicans in polls on the generic Congressional ballot, and other polls suggest the public dislikes Republicans in Congress even more than they do Democrats.

In Australia, the centre-left government has found itself confronted with an opposition that possessed of a similar uncompromising antagonism to that of congressional Republicans. Of this opposition, who, like the GOP, has found great success from their strategy, Annabel Crabb recently wrote:

It's kind of obvious, but it's worth repeating: if Tony Abbott wins the next election and becomes prime minister, his biggest and most urgent tasks will be those of the demolition variety ... Scraping back the carbon tax. Prising the permits from the paws of the polluters. Wrenching the seed funding from myriad alternative energy entrepreneurs (a deceptively tricky proposition; just because someone's proposing to generate baseload power from potato peelings doesn't mean they're necessarily going to take dispossession lying down). Digging up the National Broadband Network. The backbreaking grunt work of returning all that money to all those mining companies. Dismantling the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

There are big differences between the Australian and American political landscapes, but a Republican president would currently be looking at a similar task to that Crabb descrbes for Tony Abbott. The Tea Party powered resurgency driving the party seeks not to build but to demolish the legacy of Barack Obama. The Congress ushered in by the 2010 midterms has been one of the most unproductive of all time, and House Republicans have done little to attempt to pass policies on which they campaigned last year. They did, for instance, pass bills to repeal Obama's health care reform, but the promise to "replace" it fell by the wayside as soon as the 112th Congress convened. If Republicans in the House have no ambition other than to wind the clock back to the last days of the Bush administration, why would a Republican president behave any differently? The few policies Republicans have been putting forward are attempts to reform popular programs like Social Security and Medicare — which the public has shown no more support for now than at any previous time the GOP attempted them. 

American politics are currently trapped in a gridlock that is not sustainable, and the 2012 election will do much to resolve the impasse one way or another. If Republicans lose, it is difficult to see them approaching a second Obama term as they did the first, confident that constant obstruction would win public support. In such a case, those seeking to reinvent the party, like Salam, Douthat, or Frum, may find themselves newly influential. But if the economy is bad enough to bring down Obama, Republicans will feel their refusal to compromise has been vindicated. In such a case, the party will need an agenda.

It can't always be November 4, 1980. When Reagan come to office, he had plans bigger than reversing the legacy of his predecessor. Republicans now need the same.

11 November 2011