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Published on Sunday, February 20, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Sure Signs Of Failure On The Right
by John Nichols

Alas conservatives, we knew you well.

Too well.

But now that the conservative movement has "failed,'' the political right will be consigned to the dustbin of bad memories -- along with McCarthyism, Reaganism and all its other isms.

Hold it! Has a mysterious strain of common sense infected the body politic? How can anyone suggest that the conservative movement -- which grips such power in state capitals and the nation's capital -- is a failure.

Actually, it's become quite easy.

And quite common.

The fall 1998 punishment by American voters of Republicans who promoted the Clinton impeachment fiasco gave electoral ballast to the argument that conservatives were out of touch. Ensuing polls added muscle to the argument that the mainstream was moving left.

Then, a year ago, veteran right-wing activist Paul Weyrich released a letter urging religious right activists to withdraw from politics because their movement was so clearly at odds with the secular values of the American majority.

That opened up an intense debate on the right. A growing minority of conservatives began asking themselves honest questions about the legitimacy of their long and bitter fight to protect the interests of corporations at the expense of society, to prevent women from controlling their own bodies, to enshrine discrimination against gays and lesbians, and to turn America's schools into religious and ideological indoctrination camps.

Had they become rebels against the future, these conservatives asked.

Now it appears that John McCain's upset of the Republican apple cart has heightened the crisis of confidence on the right. The day after the New Hampshire primary -- in which McCain, who had been attacked for being "too liberal,'' trounced "compassionate'' conservative George W. Bush -- the backbiting began.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, argued that McCain's victory proved that the conservative movement is "finished.''

Frankly, Kristol is being a little silly. McCain's "success'' is hardly assured. And he is hardly a liberal; strip away the senator's "reform'' talk and he's still a rather typical right-winger on issues of military spending, abortion and social spending. Yet McCain's refusal to march in lockstep with the conservative movement has made him more appealing to voters than the "don't-make-me-think'' candidacy of George W. Bush.

The rejection even by Republican primary voters of orthodox conservatism has got professional apologists like Kristol feeling embattled. And so they should. Polls tell us that American public opinion is trending left. A Gallup survey in January found that 60 percent of those surveyed said Bill Clinton's policies should continue or be replaced by more liberal policies. Only 33 percent wanted a more conservative approach.

"There's a simple explanation for virtually all the political trends of 2000, including the declining appeal of tax cuts, the rising support for government programs, the popularity of the Democratic agenda, the less conservative than usual cast of the Republican presidential front-runners and the more liberal cast of the Democrats, indeed the success of John McCain and the failure of conservative candidates Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes,'' writes conservative Fred Barnes. "The explanation? The country has moved to the left. No, it hasn't lurched drastically. But the political mood has grown perceptibly more liberal over the past year or two.''

Is conservatism doomed? No.

Conservatism will never disappear completely. As long as there is fear and greed in this world, there will be a political movement to exploit it.

But for Americans who just a few years ago had feared that their country's promise would be cheated by a long era of conservatism, this turn of the ideological screw is encouraging. Now that even conservatives admit their movement is losing its appeal, perhaps America can get back to the business of addressing real issues, solving real problems and building a real future in which all of this nation's citizens are treated with respect and dignity.

John Nichols is the editorial page editor of The Capital Times.


2000 The Capital Times

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