Somehow, despite an endless parade of scandal and embarrassment and the not-distant memory of a presidency widely regarded as a miserable failure, the GOP is poised for a dramatic comeback. The midterm elections are still six months away, and it is entirely possible that Democrats will experience a dramatic political revival between now and then. But even if they do, there is good reason to believe that the Democratic Party has reached its high-water mark. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has suggested that Republicans will gain roughly 20 seats in the House even in the event of a huge surge in President Obama's approval rating, simply because Democrats won many staunchly Republican seats in 2006 and 2008.
The Tea Party could pave the way for a more inclusive political movement that embraces the same fiscal conservatism while leaving aside more polarizing cultural messages, as seen in the Scott Brown campaign.
And Republican strategists are confident that the president's approval rating will continue to erode, which is why they're banking on even bigger gains. Patrick Ruffini, who rallied the conservative grassroots behind Scott Brown's longshot Senate campaign in Massachusetts, has gone so far as to muse about an unprecedented gain of 70 seats in the House, citing the depth of anti-incumbent sentiment and the way new technological tools can empower upstart challengers. Chances are that Republicans won't come close to 70 seats. But the notion that Republicans can retake the House in 2010 is now considered a commonplace observation, made by even the most staid D.C. commentator.
But as recently as 2008, we were reading that conservatism was dead. In a May 2008 New Yorker essay titled " The Fall of Conservatism," George Packer argued that conservatism has been in slow-motion collapse for the better part of a decade, as a conservative cultural politics built on the anger, anxiety, and resentment of working-class whites has lost its potency. Sam Tanenhaus, in a similar vein, wrote a powerful polemic, The Death of Conservatism, premised on the notion that what remains of movement conservatism is essentially a kind of anti-state nihilism. For both Packer and Tanenhaus, the rise of the Tea Party is very much in continuity with this broader politics of resentment. Far from a break with the past, Packer, at least, sees the Tea Party as a destructive exercise in nostalgia, without any constructive purpose.
• Big Fat Story: Midterm Battle Preview In a similar vein, Mark Lilla, usually one of the more astute observers of the American right, has written an essay for The New York Review of Books describing the movement as a "libertarian mob," informed by the appetities and excesses of the 1960s rather than the hardier virtues of an earlier era. Critics on the left are inclined to see the Tea Party right as indistinguishable from the resentful conservative rump that backed President George W. Bush during the final phase of his presidency. Some go further, suggesting that the movement's anti-Obama animus is rooted in racism or, more gently, an almost inarticulable distress as the demographic composition of the United States changes.
So what happened? It's not just elderly activists at Tea Parties who've come to reject President Obama's approach to economic governance. Many of the college-educated middle-age voters who backed the president in 2008 have turned against him in the intervening months. As the right has focused more narrowly on the growing spending burden and the future tax increases it necessitates, at least some voters who had turned away from the GOP on cultural grounds are giving the party a second chance.
This changing landscape has prompted a number of subtler critiques of the right. David Frum, a reform-minded Republican looking to revitalize the party's centrist wing, has argued that movement conservatism has run its course, just as the progressive movement of the early 20th century faded after it achieved its central objectives. Now that marginal tax rates and inflation are relatively low and both major parties accept the need for free and competitive markets, the battles that defined the stagflation era have been won. And so, Frum argues, the right must move on to a new agenda that is responsive to the very different challenges of the 21st century.
Frum has taken the conservative intelligentsia to task for its blind adherence to movement orthodoxy, and he's called on the right to learn from the example of David Cameron's effort to modernize Britain's Conservative Party. But this is necessarily a slow-moving and organic process, one that arguably requires more gentle persuasion than outright confrontation. And indeed, it is possible that electoral success must come first. If large numbers of Republicans outside of the South and the Mountain West win seats in 2010, particularly suburban swing seats, there will be a built-in constituency for a more pragmatic brand of center-right politics. The Tea Party could pave the way for a more inclusive political movement that embraces the same fiscal conservatism while leaving aside more polarizing cultural messages, as seen in the Scott Brown campaign. This would parallel the evolution of the antiwar movement between 2003 to 2008, from a fringe movement that alienated moderates to a tendency that came to embrace a large majority of the public.
This could be wishful thinking on my part. Yet it does reflect the messy, awkward way real-world political movements rise and fall.
Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.