Some good news for conservatives. Twice as many Americans call themselves conservative as they do liberal. At 40% conservative, 37% moderate, and 20% liberal, that’s quite a difference. At the same time, these numbers do not represent a huge shift from a few years ago, especially given the inevitable margin of error in polling. Nevertheless, even a net five percent shift conservative-liberal can mean a significant trend in voting turnout and behavior.
The ideological split does not necessarily translate into equal partisan numbers. True, the generic ballot, which favored the Democrats so long, has tightened and, in some polls shows a Republican advantage. True, too, that the difference in overall party identification among the population, which greatly leaned towards the Democrats in late 2008, now has recovered to the point that it is the closest in a number of years. But there still is a difference that favors the Democrats that is out of step with the ideological split.
The likely reason for the continuing partisan divide has to do with the disaffection of many Republicans with their party over the last several years. Reasons include Bush fatigue (some of it justified—large spending increases in education and Medicare prescription benefits, deficits, the beginning of TARP, Harriet Miers nomination—much not, even about those same topics), dissatisfaction with McCain as a perceived RINO on domestic regulatory and tax issues, the fecklessness of the Congressional Republicans who squandered opportunity after opportunity to be something other than Democrats-lite and who seemed determined to match their friends across the aisle in personal corruption, the media drumbeat of holding Republicans to a higher standard than Democrats, and the somewhat greater tendency among Republican voters actually to hold their candidates to higher personal standards than Democrats do.
There are two very encouraging signs, however. First, the independents are becoming more conservative. That may be ex-Republicans who have assumed the independent label for whatever reason (dismay at the party, as noted above; the “cool” idea of being independent that, implicitly (and erroneously), projects a higher intellect and discernment than being affiliated with a party does), but who still likely vote for Republican candidates the great majority of the time. The ideological breakdown among independents roughly reflects that of the public at large, though, as one might expect, there are more “moderates” among the independents.
Moreover, what constitutes “moderate” is likely to ebb and flow with the political times. With public polling showing majorities concerned about the growth of government, the deficit, the health care proposals, and other policy positions that are reactions against the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress, “moderate” may be the new conservative for many. That, in turn, is likely to translate into a political advantage for Republican candidates in the midterm elections, when presidential personalities matter much less, even though it might not turn into open partisan affiliation. The one difference between such disaffected moderates and those who openly call themselves conservative, and especially those who newly call themselves conservative, is that those who actually adopt a label are more likely to follow that commitment up with a trip to the polls in 2010. It is that increase in voter intensity along with the shift in percentages that tends to cost the party in control of the White House and Congress during the midterms.
The second encouraging sign is explained in this piece by William Kristol in The Washington Post. The emerging and invigorated conservatism and, by extension, Republican Party affiliation, is of the more libertarian-populist type, rather than the Beltway-Country Club type, or the fascistic-populist type. It is of the Rush Limbaugh/Sarah Palin kind, rather than the David Brooks/Mitt Romney kind or the Keith Olbermann/Michael Moore kind. The first is the kind that is likely to make its positions loud and clear, and to resonate with broad swaths of an American people disaffected with the direction and extent of “Hope ‘n Change.” At some point, that libertarian-populist energy will need to be channelled through some more coherent intellectual framework that can be articulated by a political leader and through a broad political platform. Columnist Ross Douthat and Governor Bobby Jindal come to mind as potential contributors to that effort, though they are still incompletely formed in that regard. But we are not there yet, and there is no particular need to quell the tumult until after the 2010 elections. Let the ferment continue and have an intellectual articulation arise once the movement has gathered more force, a bottom-up rather than top-down process that works best in a democratic republic.
So, all in all, it is increasingly a good prospect for conservatives, as the President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have done in a few months what even optimistic prognosticators thought would take several election cycles, namely, invigorate and unify the opposition. But, as Kristol points out, while they have important roles to play to delay or derail Obamanomics, the Republican insiders do not have the legitimacy or qualities to lead that opposition openly. That will fall to outsiders who can more convincingly don the mantle of libertarian-populist opposition to the collectivism promoted by the political elites currently in control of the government and most civil institutions.