The long election cycle of 2010 is finally (almost) over. Yes, the general election still remains, but that’s almost an afterthought, since it is shaping to be the most boring and inconsequential federal election in a generation (seriously, will it make any real practical difference whether the Republicans pick 5 or 50 House seats?). The real action in this election cycle was in the Republican primaries, they are almost over, and we already know who won: (drum roll, please!) President Obama. American conservatives have suffered a crushing and lasting defeat. The center of gravity in American politics has shifted permanently and irreversibly to the left (and conservative ideology will eventually follow).
The saddest thing is that this conservative calamity is mostly self-inflicted. More and more conservatives get Oprah-cized (one of their favorite leaders, Sarah Palin is sometimes called “the conservative Oprah”, and in my humble opinion Glenn Beck deserves that title too). They now believe that expressing their feelings (e.g. by nominating quixotic candidates) is more important than trying to influence government policies (e.g. by nominating viable candidates). They withdraw from practical politics and instead join a protest movement. They march in the streets in tricorn hats while the liberals (whom they unwittingly help to put in office) are creating new entitlements and raising taxes.
Obama’s biggest victory so far has been in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, and it occurred a whole year before any votes were actually cast: a strong primary challenge prompted Sen. Specter to change parties, and that gave the Democrats the magic 60 votes that they needed to pass Obamacare without any sort of compromise with Republicans. Apparently, for some conservatives that was an acceptable price for purging an elderly RINO. But there were many other victories as well. Many vulnerable Democratic congressional candidates got their dream opponents (the latest example is Christine O’Donnell – unfortunately, just one of many, way too many, examples). So the GOP gains in November will be smaller than they could be. Furthermore, a lot of those gains will be easily reversible. In 2012 Obama will be on the ballot, and that will almost certainly increase the Democratic turnout (just as in 2008). Many Republicans who manage to squeak by this year will not survive 2012. And it can be even worse than in 2008 since not only will a lot of newly won Republicans seats be in danger, but some long-held seats will be in play as well, because in this year’s primaries retiring GOP congressmen and even some incumbents (not only moderates but also real conservatives like Bennett in the Senate and Inglis in the House!) were replaced with candidates who may be too conservative for their districts.
Even if Republicans capture the House this November, they will have a barely functional majority – a 225-210 split is about the best we can realistically hope for – and will be almost certain to lose the House again in 2012, potentially even by a worse margin than in 2008. Such a scenario would be devastating to conservative causes, since Obama would claim that his own re-election victory combined with his party wrestling the House from the GOP (and expanding their Senate majority) gives him a clear mandate to implement his agenda (rather than pursue bipartisanship). And make no mistake, that’s the mandate Obama plans to get before pursuing his remaining agenda. All the talk about the importance of this year’s election in stopping Obama is just talk. There’s nothing to stop! Obama was done with his first term several months ago. He knew from the very start that his popularity would decline and that his party would likely lose seats in the midterm elections, so he could not have possibly planned to leave any important part of his first-term agenda for the second half of that term. He did what he could (and that’s a lot) in the first 18 months or so, and the rest will just have to wait for a new mandate. If anything, a small and rudderless (but increasingly ideological) GOP majority in the House will actually make it easier for Obama to win re-election.
Obamacare is not the only lasting effect from this year’s primaries. The Senate seats that the Republicans threw away (the seat in Delaware has just been added to this list) will now be in the hands of Democrats for 6 years, and some of them will not realistically come into play again for much longer than that. Who knows, the Republican president in 2025 (I’m not very optimistic we will see one earlier than that) may have some important part of his agenda derailed because of coming up one Senate vote short (thanks to a Democrat rather than Republican representing Delaware).
But there are still even worse and more lasting effects – which we will never be able to quantify. We will never know how many talented young people contemplating entering Republican politics (especially in swing states) will decide to pursue other career options instead because of all the ugliness they saw in this primary season (nor how many congressional Republicans will retire earlier than they otherwise would). But we can be sure that conservatism will be suffering for decades because of their decisions.