Julian E. Zelizer: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to the Right

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, is the author of "Jimmy Carter," "Arsenal of Democracy," and the editor of "The Presidency of George W. Bush."]

When President Obama started his term in the White House in January 2009, many experts wondered whether conservatism would survive. Following almost three decades of conservative politics in the United States, the movement confronted a serious political crisis. With the collapse of the economy and a troubled war in Iraq, many of the ideas of the right -- such as deregulation and tax cuts -- seemed discredited. President Bush appeared to have become to conservatism what Lyndon Johnson had once been to liberalism, a symbol of the failures and excesses of a political era. Sen. John McCain’s lethargic campaign also revealed a vacuum of leadership within the GOP at a time when the divisions among conservatives were greater than the ideas that united them. In December 2008, the blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote that the "dreadful incompetence" of the Bush administration had "poisoned the Republican brand for more than one generation ..."

Yet it is fair to say that one of the major stories of Obama’s presidency has been the revitalization of conservatism. Within only two years, Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives through a dramatic midterm election. There are now an abundance of Republicans, some old (Newt Gingrich) and some new (Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin), who are jumping over each other to campaign for president in 2012. Republicans have been able to join hands, despite their differences, by using President Obama as their foil. The president has filled a similar role as communism did during the Cold War. Perhaps most troubling to liberals, President Obama has been unable, and in some cases unwilling, to dismantle pillars of Bush’s policies. The extension of the Bush tax cuts was a major victory for conservatives, even as they gave way on unemployment benefits.

It is too easy to say that pundits simply exaggerated the crisis of conservatism. The problems facing the right toward the end of Bush’s presidency were very real and their ability to rebound was not inevitable....

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