The 48 hours since the election of Barack Obama have been unkind. Friends once thought sensible recount how they burst into tears, or felt proud of America for the first time in eight years, or stood in awe of this historic moment. There is something to the last: it is historic that, as Shelby Steele writes, “For the first time in human history, a largely white nation has elected a black man to be its paramount leader.” Steele’s history is not entirely correct – I would argue that the 1992 South African referendum amounted to the same thing – but his point is taken, and there is certainly no parallel between 1992 South Africa and 2008 America.
Yet that is the beginning and the end of the historic import of the ascent of the President-elect. His race, or rather, his races aside, there is little that sets him apart as a public figure, and still less as a public servant. His is an absorbing tale for its own sake, which may be why he is so absorbed in writing and re-writing it; but the pity of his memoir-genic journey is that it yielded a man who is, by all accounts, personally decent – once he got past not wanting to marry his wife – and politically banal. Unlike his defeated opponent, Barack Obama has never displayed public courage of any sort. Unlike his defeated opponent, Barack Obama has never crossed a single person wielding power over him. Unlike his defeated opponent, Barack Obama has only once submitted to self-parody, lampooning, or humor – at the Al Smith Dinner, where it’s mandatory. (A life yielding two memoirs by 45 is doubtless above all that.) Is this the stuff of a new era? America has elected the self-regarding before. America has elected the relentlessly ambitious before. America has elected creditable orators before. America has elected machine politicians before. America has elected glittering mediocrities before. Despite this – despite the appalling ordinariness of Barack Obama – friends and fellow citizens react as if they are suddenly blessed by the guidance and protection of one wise and strong, when that one has never shown particular wisdom nor strength.
There is a good reason for this. Dull and depressing as the adulation for the President-elect may be, it cannot be viewed in isolation. If a majority of Americans adore a man who has done precisely nothing to deserve their adoration, it is not because they are stupid. (Not all of them, in any case: the cheerful, chubby and naked girl squealing our next President’s name in the streets of midtown Sacramento, whom my wife and I encountered walking to our car on election night, probably is.) It is because the alternative has been so thoroughly bad. The conservative movement and its vehicle, the Republican party, managed to botch national governance to a degree that, all things being equal, would discredit both for a generation. The litany of failures retains its power to astonish: one war half won, one war half lost, one city half gone, one terrorist mastermind still free, one economy half dead, et cetera, et cetera, when does it end? And who is this charming man with the big smile and the funny name who will make it all go away? In this light – the light of stark reality – enthusiasm for Barack Obama, however thoroughly insipid, is also thoroughly rational.
All things, of course, are not equal – and so my movement and my party will be back in power of some sort long before a generation passes. This is a problem. The fundamental flaw of the conservative movement and the Republican party – for they are wedded, and their fates joined – is that it is a good and powerful machine for achieving power. This remains true even now, in the wake of a national defeat that was not so crushing as the electoral-vote tally suggests. (Look, for example, to the popular vote split; and look to the resounding success of social-conservative propositions in several states.) If we roughly gauge that movement’s ascendancy in the party as starting in the late 1970s, we see that it has since won five of eight Presidential elections, six of 14 Congresses, and nearly overturned the ideological balance of the Supreme Court. This is a fairly good record, and there is no reason to believe that the interlocking apparatus of money, ideologues, media, activists, and officeholders will not regain its balance and efficacy in time.
If it seems counterintuitive that a knack for the acquisition of power is a flaw, consider that achieving power is distinct from exercising it. Conservatism, as constituted in its movement, has a record of exercising power that is as bad as its record of acquiring power is good. “[B]efore he fell asleep,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise, “he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams, the one about becoming a great half-back, or the one about the Japanese invasion, when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” This is the tragic flaw of the conservative movement, and hence the Republican party: we are the Amory Blaine of American public life, dreaming of becoming, and thinking of being far too late.
And so the wheels turn, and my fellow conservative leaders – those who deserve the title, and those who appointed themselves to it – begin their plotting and maneuvering to seize power again. This time, we’ll do it right, we assure ourselves. We won’t do what we did when we ruled unchallenged for six years. What an aberration that was! How un-conservative! So much so, that when the voters rejected us, they weren’t actually rejecting us.
Today, a conclave took place at the Stanley, Virginia, home of Brent Bozell III. Conservative movement luminaries of all sorts gathered. “[The American Spectator] Publisher Al Regnery and editor in chief R. Emmett Tyrrell were on hand,” wrote Philip Klein. “Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, pollster Kellyanne Conway, and direct mail guru Richard Viguerie were among those present.” Indeed, it would be difficult to assemble a more powerful group of movement-conservative leaders. They spoke amongst themselves, and agreed upon a statement of principles, and a course of action. Shortly thereafter, I and several dozen other lesser lights of the movement received an e-mail:
CONSERVATIVE LEADERS MEETING IN STANLEY, VA TO HOLD TELENEWSCONFERNCE AT 4:15.
Call in details follow.
We dutifully called in. We waited and chatted a bit on the line, as Bozell and his august house guests roused themselves to join us. Presently, someone decided to place a call on an open line, connected to ours, and we heard the line begin to ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Could you mute your lines?” asked the moderator. Everyone did except the unattended, infinitely ringing line. Ring. Ring. Ring. “I hear ringing,” chimed in several voices. “You need to disconnect everyone and have us all call back in,” I said. “Mr Bozell is coming,” said the moderator. Ring. Ring. Ring. Mr Bozell arrived.
“This is Brent Boz-”
“I’m joined by Grover Norq-”
“We’re going to fight for conserva-”
Thus, for tedious, ringing minutes. The ringing was shortly joined by intermittent clicking, as listeners dropped off the incomprehensible call.
“Our movement is stronger than ev-”
“So we call on all conserv-”
The last click I heard was my own. It is unfair to see a metaphor in this, but I will. Until we exercise power with the same alacrity and skill with which we acquire it, the conservative movement is this: a useless gathering of old men. We who know better cannot therefore blame those who flock to the vapid appeal of the likes of Barack Obama. If I did not know better, I would too. But I do, and so I struggle to not despair.