Peter Berkowitz: The Death of Conservatism Was Greatly Exaggerated





[Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.]

Last August left little doubt that a conservative revival was underway. Constituents packed town-hall meetings across the country to confront Democratic House members and senators ill-prepared to explain why, in the teeth of a historic economic downturn and nearly 10% employment, President Obama and his party were pressing ahead with costly health-care legislation instead of reining in spending, cutting the deficit and spurring economic growth.

Still, whether that revival would have staying power was very much open to question. A year later—and notwithstanding the Democrats' steadily declining poll numbers and the mounting electoral momentum that could well produce a Republican majority in the House and a substantial swing in the Senate—it still is.

Sustaining the revival depends on the ability of GOP leaders, office-holders and candidates to harness the extraordinary upsurge of popular opposition to Mr. Obama's aggressive progressivism. Our constitutional tradition provides enduring principles that should guide them.

In late 2008 and early 2009, in the wake of Mr. Obama's meteoric ascent, the idea that conservatism would enjoy any sort of revival in the summer of 2009 would have seemed to demoralized conservatives too much to hope for. To leading lights on the left, it would have appeared absolutely outlandish.

In late October 2008, New Yorker staff writer George Packer reported "the complete collapse of the four-decade project that brought conservatism to power in America." Two weeks later, the day after Mr. Obama's election, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed "the end of a conservative era" that had begun with the rise of Ronald Reagan.

And in February 2009, New York Times Book Review and Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, writing in The New Republic, declared that "movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead." Mr. Tanenhaus even purported to discern in the new president "the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right."

Messrs. Packer, Dionne and Tanenhaus underestimated what the conservative tradition rightly emphasizes, which is the high degree of unpredictability in human affairs. They also conflated the flagging fortunes of George W. Bush's Republican Party with conservatism's popular appeal. Most importantly, they failed to grasp the imperatives that flow from conservative principles in America, and the full range of tasks connected to preserving freedom...



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