The End of the Conservative Era

06/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

November 5, 2008 will be a triple witching day in American politics. Not only will the presidency change hands, but the party holding the White House will relinquish power and the modern conservative era that began in 1980 will crash to an end. The explanations for these epic changes can be found in my new books, The Keys to the White House 2008 Edition and White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.

The Keys to the White House are a historically based prediction system that retrospectively account for the results of presidential elections from 1860 to 1980. Prospectively the Keys predicted well ahead of time the popular-vote winners of every presidential election since 1984. In 2004 the Keys anticipated George Bush reelection more than a year and a half prior to Election Day.

The system is based on the theory that that a pragmatic electorate chooses a president according to the performance of the party holding the White House as gauged by the consequential events and episodes of a term. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage, and campaign strategies - the usual grist for the punditry mills - count for virtually nothing on Election Day.

The Keys are 13 diagnostic questions that are stated as propositions that favor reelection of the incumbent party. When six or more of these propositions are false the party in power loses the White House. This year, the incumbent Republican have governed poorly enough to have lost seven keys, one more than needed to predict their defeat. The party lost the 2006 midterm elections and does not have a sitting president at the top of its ticket. Economic growth has lagged during Bush's second term, the administration lacks major domestic accomplishments, and it has suffered failure abroad with no compensating successes. In John McCain, the GOP lacks a charismatic candidate comparable to Ronald Reagan. An eighth key will also fall if the economy tumbles into recession this year.

But Republican problems are not limited to losing a presidential election. The modern American conservative movement has run its course, the victim of contradictions that have splintered the movement beyond repair.

The conservative leadership has deserted the House and the Senate, and Democrats should expand their majorities in both these chambers this fall. Conservatives are unhappy with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, but they failed to find a champion among a slew of other Republican candidates for president. They have even turned on their one-time hero President George W. Bush, a sure sign of a movement in decline. In the unkindest cut of all, the late patriarch William F. Buckley said about Bush in 2006, "If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we've experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign."

In straining to prove his conservative credentials, McCain vainly hopes to appease a movement that is too fragmented to be appeased. Like Humpty Dumpty after the fall, all the GOP's horses and all the GOP's men cannot put together again business and social conservatives, big and small government conservatives, tax cutters and deficit hawks, and foreign adventurers and advocates of the humble foreign policy that Bush proposed in his 2000 campaign but quickly abandoned. They cannot find common ground between prudential conservatives, including McCain, who are wary of radical change and revolutionary conservatives like Newt Gingrich who are dedicated to smashing the liberal state and annihilating the Democrats.

Conservatives cannot reconcile their historic opposition to social engineering with their backing for one of the most expensive and ambitious social engineering ventures in US history: the reconstruction of Iraq. They cannot square their backing for states' rights with their support for constitutional amendments on abortion and gay marriage and their opposition to vehicle emission standards set by California and other states. They cannot reconcile their advocacy of individual freedom with their support for warrantless wiretapping of U. S. citizens, stringent versions of the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts, and an Executive Order that empowers the federal government to freeze the assets of anyone who threatens Iraq's stability and government.

The defeat of John McCain by the liberal Barack Obama would mark the end of the current conservative era almost as clearly as Franklin Roosevelt's defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932 marked the end of the conservative 1920s. Even if McCain were to win the presidency he would likely preside over a divided government and become a transitional figure, an Andrei Chernenko to a future Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the transition may not be an easy one for today's liberals. In 1969, when liberalism was facing troubles of its own, Buckley's brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, who helped build National Review, warned that conservatives had failed to respond with a constructive program of their own. It is a warning that liberals should heed as they contemplate conservatism's troubles today.